Alan Berliner will be here for a weekend retrospective of his work. It’s entitled Family Matters, and filmmakers David Fisher and Sandra Luckow will also be there to talk about what happens when one turns the camera on one’s immediate relatives. Also some film scholars will share their ideas about his films, but mostly there will be Alan and his films. Come if you can. Here is the schedule:
I banded together with three other New Haven filmmakers to put on a joint presentation/celebration of our documentaries. This page will link to the website that Gorman Bechard put together for us: www.nhdocs.com. The irony is that Gorman’s wife manages the coffee shop half a block from my office and he is often there–but somehow we never met until both our documentaries were accepted by the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. Below is the postcard image, which he also designed.
the BBQ we threw for those loyal souls who came to see our docs. We gave them a break between the third and four pictures. It was a lovely summer evening in the Timothy Dwight College courtyard.
Afterwards we went back to the WHC auditorium to screen our final documentary of the day, Gorman Bechard’s Every Everything: The Life and Time of Grant Hart. Followed by a Q & A.
Organizing the screenings was a great way for the four of us to connect and also a nice way to meet some documentary fans (and some documentary filmmakers) in the area.
The sad reality is that Lisa Molomot and her husband Jacob Bricca left the next day for Arizona where they have jobs teaching filmmaking at Arizona State. But Gorman and I are planning to make NHdocs an annual event!
We are going to be screening the results of Documentary Film Workshop, a year-long course which I taught in the fall. Israeli filmmaker David Fisher, who came to Yale on a fellowship, then took over in the spring while I went on leave. It has been a great experience to have him here –for me and also the students. So I am going to see the final results on the 30th.
More to come
It’s been a busy period and I have found it hard to keep all the balls in the air at once. Since something had to give, blogging and social media were put to the side. I have been on the circuit: Missoula, Montana and Seattle, Washington (on separate trips), New York, Paris, Amsterdam and then returning to New Haven, just in time to catch another film festival. Here’s a quick account with a few photos.
I am particularly grateful to the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival because its invitation to screen Errol Morris: A Lightning Sketch led to the final completion of the film. Their invitation meant I finally completed the film. It even inspired tightning the opening scenes in a way that finally gave the documentary a crisp opening. On the promise of a debut, I was able to raise finish funds for the sound mix and color correction. (In fact, the technology for this had changed far more radically than I had realized. An eye opening experience.)
Nothing like a deadline to focus one’s efforts.Six days before the scheduled screening, we finally got a final DVD and Blue Ray. It was a little tense and certainly intense. Attending to small glitches and issues of sync can be nerve racking and exhausting. Thanks to Lee Faulkner and Louisa de Cossey, we made the deadline. In the old days, we would have talked about “answer prints.” I showed the third answer print of Before the Nickelodeon at the New York Film Festival press screening. And the final (fourth) for the premiere. We no longer have prints and I asked various people what they call the present-day equivalent. Uncertainty prevailed. Lee Faulkner proposed “release candidate” as in Release Candidate A, Release Candidate B. If so, we got up to about Release Candidate J before calling it quits.
Big Sky Film Festival was terrific as I reconnected with people from my past. Nick Doob, who taught me some of the basics of synching dailies when he was a graduate student and I an undergraduate at Yale some 40 years ago, was there to screen Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life & Times of Katrina Gilbert which he produced and directed with Shari Cookson. Jan Krawitz, who runs the documentary program at Stanford, was there with Perfect Strangers. We had last met at the 1982 New York Film Festival where she screened Little People (1982) and I screened Before the Nickelodeon (1982). In fact we were on a panel together.
Another unexpected pleasure was to discover that there were three other New Haven filmmakers at the festival, with two other films. Gorman’s wife runs the coffee shop around the corner from my office. Despite his remarkable productivity, we had never met. He was there with his documentary Every Everything: The Music, Life & Times of Grant Hart (2103). Jacob Bricca was there with his documentary Tatanka (2014), a portrait of his father who had been a political activist in the 1960s. I have known Jacob more because of his wife Lisa Molomot who did a fabulous job filling in for us, teaching Documentary Film Workshop and another course at Yale. Typically, we find it hard to meet in New Haven and had a dinner together in Missoula, Montana!
I was out at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference in Seattle Washington, March 19-23rd. This was my first father-daughter conference–both immensely pleasurable and at the same time sobering for all the obvious reasons. As it turned out, we booked the same flight from Newark Airport.
My blogging efforts have fallen as I find myself writing about events weeks after they have happened. Not good, but in the middle of the academic semester, with overdue articles piling up, it seems unavoidable. DOC NYC, run by the Thom Powers-Raphaela Neihausen partnership with plenty of eager supporters around the edges, is a wonderfully ambitious film festival which caters to my passions for documentary. Plus it is in my home city.
There had been various efforts to showcase documentaries in the past but they either filled niche topics (eg Human Rights Watch Film Festival) or never quite took off. Home town festivals have their pluses and minuses. They are convenient (no need to book a plane or pay for a hotel) but ironically even when they are crosstown (or downtown in my case), it is not always easy to get there. And since since the New York Film Festival coincides with the Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, I haven’t been able to attend for the last several years. Anyway, this year DOC NYC provided an opportunity to catch some must-see films and occasionally walk into a screening without any expectations and be surprised.
The opening night film was The Unknown Known, Errol Morris’s portrait of Donald Rumsfeld. Let me confess a certain pride of indirect authorship which is undoubtedly unjustified. In other situations this is called “conflict of interest.” Amanda Branson Gill, one of the film producers, took my Documentary Film & Photography course (co-taught with Laura Wexler) many years ago. She subsequently brought her paper for that course, which was on the photographs of Abu Ghraib, to Errol and Standard Operating Procedure was the result. Co-producer on that film, she is one of the producers of The Unknown Known.
Let me just state–flat out–that I think The Unknown Known is brilliant. I am with the 75% of the critics who seem to love it, though Errol and his team are always sensitive to the negative responses, such as Todd McCarthy in the Hollywood Reporter who started his review:
“Lightning doesn’t strike twice for Errol Morris interviewing a controversial U.S. government war hawk in The Unknown Known, an unsuccessful attempt to get inside the head, under the skin or through the looking glass of Bush administration Secretary of Defense and Iraq War proponent Donald Rumsfeld.”
and then goes on to say
“Morris tediously recycles points he already made in his 2008 look at the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Standard Operating Procedure.”
Really? McCarthy is often an astute reviewer but I have to respectively disagree. The relationship of The Unknown Known to Standard Operating Procedure is complex but complementary, not redundant. Rumsfled appears in seven or eight snapshots, visiting the Abu Ghraib prison while roughly the same number of the infamous Abu Ghraib photographs appear in The Unknown Known. I say approximate but I am all but certain that the number and function of these photographs are not casual or approximate. Their relationship simply is a topic for future exploration and research.
Some times it is hard not to wax philosophically–perhaps even sentimentally when, as a bit player in academia, I find myself immersed in institutional forms of collegial exchange that are also rituals of renewal. At such moments I cannot help but feel my place in a certain genealogy. These situations are not without their ironies but they often force us to confront the rapid passage of time. (Wasn’t it just yesterday that I was a young whippersnapper?) Anyway, here are three such recent moments for me.
Exhibit A: October 19th. I will start on a personal note. My daughter Hannah Zeavin, who is a second year Ph.D. student in the Department of Media, Culture and Communication at NYU, organized a panel which she submitted for consideration at the annual SCMS (Society for Cinema and Media Studies) conference to take place this coming March in Seattle. As it turns out, I submitted a workshop proposal to the same conference. Yesterday we found out that hers was accepted while mine was turned down. Since I am connected with another panel that was also accepted, we are going to attend our first joint conference. But about those ironies…
Is not a picture worth a thousand words? Perhaps it helps if one knows the back story. Jonathan Kahana flew to New York from the West Coast to be on this panel at NYU’s Department of Cinema Studies with Hannah and Dana Polan. They were examining John Huston’s documentary Let There Be Light (1946), which I have certainly taught more than once at NYU many years ago when I was an adjunct there. Before the event, Jonathan gave me a call to express his sense of disorientation. He and I had been on a panel together at the previous SCMS conference. Now he was on a panel with my daughter. Dana’s presence is also worthy of comment, for he played a small but interesting role in Hannah’s early intellectual development. As a very young girl (would she have qualified as a toddler?), Hannah had figured out that people whose first name ended with an “a” sound were female. Her own name being a good example but there were many others (Noa Steimatsky or Gloria Monti, for instance). So she was beginning to figure out the apparent logic of how this world operates––and then Dana Polan dropped by. She was visibly puzzled since he violated her understanding of how the gendered world was organized and named. It was probably her first act of necessary intellectual revision.
I was not at this occasion but the event was documented by Dan Streible, who had crashed on my couch many years ago when he was doing research in NYC. Hannah was about five and he brought a reading glass as a kind of house present. Hannah was immediately fascinated about this instrument of investigation and she would ask about Dan (the man with the magnifying glass) for many years afterwards.
Now let me add one more fact–– about that workshop that I proposed, which was turned down. Jonathan Kahana was supposed to be one of its members. In fact, its chair.
Exhibit B: November 4th. I took my first course in the history of documentary with Brian Winston at NYU’s Cinema Studies department––it must have been in the late 1970s. Almost a decade later, after the success of my documentary Before the Nickelodeon, I had the chance to teach the same course––filling in for George Stoney who was pursuing other opportunities. It proved to be one of the more disconcerting experiences of my life as I periodically heard myself channeling Brian during my first year of lectures. I was speaking Winstonese. By then Brian had left NYU for Penn State, then University of Wales (Cardiff) and is now at University of Lincoln (England) where he was Dean of Communications and briefly a Pro Vice Chancellor. Currently the first Lincoln Chair of Communications at that University, he was touring with his newly published anthology, The Documentary Film Book (BFI/Palgrave, 2013)––to which I made a contribution: “Problems in Historiography: The Documentary Tradition Before Nanook of the North.” It presents a much longer historical trajectory of “the documentary tradition” even as it strives to think through issues involving genre and media specificity that the field of documentary studies needs to address. Here I will note that there is a certain tradition of student’s work appearing in collections assembled by their teachers and mentors. Some 35 years later, Brian and I finally pulled it off. What’s interesting is that Brian looks pretty much the same as he did in 1980. Wish I could say the same.
Here is the important point: Although Brian Winston came to Yale to discuss “The State of Documentary Studies Today,” it was not me who brought him to Yale. Film Studies Program chair John MacKay and Brian are part of a European-based group which is studying the newsreel. John was eager for Brian to stop off at Yale while on his US tour, and I volunteered to organize it. John, as I remind him all too frequently got into Film Studies in significant part by being a teaching assistant in my two lecture courses (Intro to Film Studies, Film Theory and Aesthetics), for its in there that he saw his first two Vertov films. And so I happily find myself the indirect relay.
Much of Brian’s talk reprised his introduction to The Documentary Film Book, which I saw in print for the first time when he arrived with book in hand. I am always intrigued with the different histories of documentary, which vary depending on nation (or even locale) from which they originate. To some degree there is an Anglo-American variant but Brian made me realize that as a Brit, he has had to struggle with the hegemonic influence of John Grierson far more than have many American practitioners. (I was exposed to Vertov and Cinema Verité long before I read anything by Grierson.) The discussion got more interesting––and certainly more passionate–– when Brian turned to contemporary documentaries. He expressed his adamant opposition to The Act of Killing which Joshua Oppenheimer had recently brought to Yale (while I was in Stockholm–see below). So Brian and Josh Glick (then on the cusp of being my former advisee) went toe to toe on this one, while I had to stand by, unable to comment.
Meanwhile undergraduates from my Contemporary Documentary Film and Video class looked on.
Exhibit C. November 9th. I traveled to Stockholm University to serve as the Opponent for a dissertation defense in Cinema Studies section of the Department of Media Studies: Nadi Tofighian was set to defend his dissertation Blurring the Colonial Binary: Turn-of-the-Century Transnational Entertainment in Southeast Asia. These occasions remain significantly more elaborate rituals than is common in the United States. First, the dissertations are printed. It are real books with an ISPN number (though I have just given you the link to Nadi’s on-line version). So they are definitely more polished than the average dissertation one encounters as a reader in the US. Besides the Opponent who is brought in as a hired gun, there is the Dissertation Advisor (in this case John Fullerton) whose job is essentially over and must sit quietly in the role of silent Proponent. Then there are three evaluators who may ask a question or two at the defense, but they are essentially there to decided the outcome: the choices are either “pass” or “fail.” The process is overseen by a chair, in this case Vice Dean Tytti Soila. After the outcome is announced there is a celebratory champagne toast and lunch for the relevant faculty. That evening the newly approved Doctor of Philosophy puts on a party for friends, family and colleagues. Even the Opponent, who has fortunately failed to convince the jury that the dissertation should be rejected, is invited––and makes a toast.
In fact, the weekend of events began on Thursday evening when I had dinner with some friends and junior colleagues who were at Stockholm University in the Media Studies Department: Laura Horak had been my advisee as an undergraduate at Yale. She received her Ph.D. from UC-Berkeley and
was at Stockholm as a post-doc. I had met Joel Frykholm when teaching two summers ago at Stockholm University and ended up serving as a respondent for an early cinema panel he organized at the annual SCMS conference last year. I had met Doron Galili when he was a graduate student at University of Chicago. More recently he had been a visiting lecturer at Oberlin College, where he kindly brought me in as a guest scholar-filmmaker. In that small world category he is now a Post Doc at SU. Kim Fahlstedt, who is working on an early cinema dissertation, had been my teaching assistant when I taught at SU two years ago. I could not have survived without his terrific support. So it was a reunion of sorts.
I spent much of Friday preparing and…
I spent much of Friday preparing and on Saturday went to the Film House where the Cinema Studies Section is based and where the defense was taking place:
With Nadi’s permission I am presenting my remarks and some accompanying photographs. Once again my camera was working. He began by saying that he plans to revise the dissertation still further and turn it into a book–as well as some articles. My comments, designed to point towards the dissertaiton’s achievements as well as areas for further exploration and analysis, had that in mind. At various moments, Nadi responded to my comments. Those are reflected here, but I have offered Nadi the chance to add comments to this blog (within the blog itself) at some future date.
My Remarks at Nadi Tofighian’s Dissertation Defense
It is a pleasure and an honor to be here to celebrate the defense of Nadi Tofighian’s dissertation Blurring the Colonial Binary: Turn-of-the-Century Transnational Entertainment in Southeast Asia. I would like to thank Vice Dean Tytti Solia, Professor John Fullerton and others in the Department of Media Studies who made this possible.
These rituals are important and I contrast them to ours in the United States, particularly at Yale. The day I left New Haven for Stockholm–Wednesday, we completed the dissertation defense of one of my students—Josh Glick. Four faculty members, including me, had written up our evaluations and comments, which were presented to the American Studies faculty at a lunch time meeting. Dr. Glick’s dissertation was passed. On Monday, Josh thought we were meeting on Tuesday. On Tuesday he learned we were meeting on Wednesday. On Wednesday evening, while waiting for my plane, I filled him in on the results via email. He passed and everyone thought his dissertation would make a swell book with some more revisions. Josh found the process rather anti-climatic. Here at Stockholm University Nadi presents us with a completed book, and it is fair to say that he will not be waiting around for an email to find out if he passed or not.
Of course I come to this event in the role of the opponent, who adds the necessary drama and spice to the proceedings. I like to think I was chosen for a few reasons. First, it continues and so enhances my relations with the Department of Media Studies where I taught a course on Media and American Politics two summers ago. Second, I assume that my profile has somehow become sufficiently established, so my readiness to serve as an opponent is well known. That is I have been the friendly opponent of Tom Gunning and cinema of attractions for some 20 years. Tom, as many of you know, has an honorary degree from Stockholm University and is one of my best friends. Of course, there are scholars for whom I have been a strong opponent with whom I am on less friendly terms, but I am confident that Stockholm University has no relations with them! In any case, I anticipate remaining on friendly relations with Nadi after this defense.
The final reason for my presence today has more to do with my own interests and engagement with the subject of Mr. Tofighian’s dissertation. Indeed, it seems to me that it has much to do with how we first met: at a conference on the Origins of the Cinema in Southeast Asia in Quezon City in August of 2005. Nadi was living in the Philippines completing a master’s thesis on Jose Nepomuceno, who has generally been hailed as the Philippines first native filmmaker. And he gave a paper on the distribution of Nordisk Films in Asia. Most of us, however, were busy pursuing local or national cinemas. For instance in my usual oppositional fashion I was investigating the history of early cinema in the Philippines to about 1912-13 and giving our host and my dear friend Nick Deocampo a hard time of it. Others were looking at cinema practices in Siam/Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan and so forth. Each of us was operating within individual “national” silos. So one of the fundamental questions—perhaps the fundamental question––that came out of that conference had to do with the relations and interconnectedness of these different national or proto-national colonial cinemas. In this respect, Nadi’s dissertation is a bold effort to explore this interconnectedness on the level of the transnational circulation of entertainment. He shows how circuses and other amusement entities crossed colonial boundaries as they moved from India and Ceylon into Southeast Asia—Siam, Malaysia, Java, Vietnam and the Philippines. He argues that “Although Southeast Asia as a concept was non-existent, at the turn of the century, it existed as a form of cultural entity, primarily through networks of shipping, trade and cultural amusements.” (p 17) He treats these geographic entities—which have a wildly divergent histories and systems of government as a whole—by examining the impact of transnational entertainments, particularly the cinema, on these societies and the ways they blurred political boundaries. He also emphasizes the blurring of boundaries between colonizers and colonized. With circuses as a precedent, Tofighian argues that the cinema provided an opportunity for diverse racial and economic groups to come together in a shared public space. That is there is a break from previous forms of cultural life, which were strongly segregated along ethnic-racial-cultural lines.
Tofighian must have taken away another insight from the 2005 conference on Origins of the Cinema in Southeast Asia. Our knowledge about Malaysia and particularly Singapore was scant. Because of his work on Scandinavian film in Southeast Asia, he understood Singapore as a pivotal site for commerce in the region and so did extensive, often apparently exhaustive research in newspapers from that city, other Straits Settlements and the Malayan states under British rule. He also did more selective and limited research in newspapers from the Philippines, the Dutch West Indies, Vietnam and Bangkok. It is my impression that many of these materials had not been previously consulted by cinema scholars. Nadi thus uncovered a rich vein of pertinent information and he mined it–-gaining a much better sense of the frequency of exhibitions, the films shown, prices, location and so forth. This is a major achievement and I learned a great deal from it. For instance, the impact of the Russo-Japanese War on Asia in general is something I had not adequately appreciated through my American eyes. It was a war that disrupted the binary, which had European Whites as dominant while Asians occupied lesser positions. Most particularly there was a wave of Japanese film exhibitors who moved into Southeast Asia even as the war was going on––and showed films of this struggle to large audiences in Singapore, the Straits, Bangkok and elsewhere. They represented a New Asia. They were simultaneously promoters of a Pan-Asian sensibility but also of a world in which Japanese occupied a position similar in many ways to European colonizers.
I should add that Nadi utilized an impressive array of secondary literature on the history of British Imperialism and that grounded much of his newspaper research on Singapore. This then was the resource dialectic that informed his intellectual project.
I’d like to develop and explore some other parts of the dissertation in the course of posing some questions but is there anything that you would like to add or correct at this point?
The dissertation does an excellent job of detailing the history of newspapers particularly in Singapore. And they appear in the bibliography. I note you visited the national libraries in quite few countries, but not surprisingly the universe of newspapers in larger than you could exhaust. For instance, my work on early cinema in the Philippines has used the Manila Times which you don’t use—but rather use half a dozen other papers instead. We also live in an era where digitization is more or less rapidly revolutionizing the process of research, particularly newspaper research. Question 1) With the use of newspapers as the backbone of this project, I wonder if Mr. Tafighian could tell us a little bit about this process, its limitations and what perhaps you had to leave unfinished and unsurveyed.
This is my first point of engagement. And I say this as someone who is struggling with the opportunities of our new era of research methodologies. But I think your arguments and insights could have been strengthened by doing a random word access of at least two trade journals—the New York Clipper in the US and The Era in London. For instance I did a random word access of the term “Singapore” in the New York Clipper for 1890-1900 and think I came up with about 40 hits. These included letters from managers of circuses, some of which you mention in your dissertation. Likewise in the Era and the Clipper I received quite a few hits for the magician Carl Hertz, one of the early pioneers of film exhibition in Southeast Asia and someone you mention. He might actually challenge a notion of a cultural Southeast Asia in the 1890s. Hertz first shows films on shipboard headed to Capetown, then stops in South Africa, moved on to India and Ceylon—then Australia and New Zealand before stopping in Java and Singapore. Whether he goes to Manila is unclear—he claims to have been chased out of there by the Spanish American War but did he ever get there? Or did he get there but have to leave before performing? In any case he was in Hong Kong, Nanking, Shanghai and Hawaii before reaching San Francisco.
In short Hertz soon ended up back in London, having completed a round-the-world tour. He demonstrates that there is a level in which we can now talk about the circulation of a global world performance culture; and film complemented and then arguably dominated this circulation. Now there may be other entertainment groups—notably circuses—that move within a more limited geographical boundaries but the manager of Warren’s Circus wrote the NY Clipper from Shanghai and describes performing in Burmah, Ceylon Java, Malaysia, Cochin China, the Philippines, China and Japan. Just as clearly some of the “Australian Letters” suggest a circuit that constructs the British Empire from South Africa to India and Australia and perhaps Hong Kong. So while there are trade routes that bind different parts of Southeast Asia together they also bind its constituent parts together in what might be the orient or the East –while some amusement companies participated in a subset of the global economy, which was the British Empire. This would be particularly true for theatrical companies performing in English. Magicians, circuses and cinema did not have these kinds of constraints. Let me say that as you turn elements of this dissertation into articles and other forms of scholarship, you might also fruitfully perform random word searches of other newspapers such as the London Times, the San Francisco Chronicle.
In any case, the nature of these circuits may change over time. Singapore becomes a regional center for cinema but one that is smaller—connected to the Straits Settlements and Malaysia and to a lesser extent parts of the Dutch West Indies and Siam/Bangkok. Since––as your dissertation points out (pp 138-144)–– Levy Hermanos had offices in the Philippines, those offices rather than its Singapore office probably handled Filipinos’ need for films.
2) So my second question is to challenge you and ask you if there is not more work to be done on the complex picture of what constitutes a regional culture—and how this culture is related to a global cultural economy on one hand and to the local on the other.
It seems to me that one important achievement of your dissertation involves explicating how cinema was being used to promote the British Empire and Singapore’s place within it. In the first stage, you argue that cinema is presented as a technological novelty, which is a demonstration of British and European intellectual and technological supremacy. Here you use Brian Larkin’s work on Nigeria (Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria). But you then point out that this technological supremacy more or less rapidly disappears—beginning in the very early 1900s and certainly fully by 1905 when there were the various Japanese Cinematograph exhibitors. So you seem to use Larkin briefly but then suggest that the situation in Southeast Asia is different than Africa.
3) I wonder if you could develop more the difference between West Africa and Southeast Asia. That is, it seems to me that British Colonialism in West Africa versus Southeast Asia (Singapore in particular) were soon different enough so that you might have profitably explored these differences—rather than note a relatively brief moment of similarity and then drop it. That is, if you were to argue for a regional culture with certain characteristics, it would be important to show how this region––Southeast Asia––differs from others. These arguments can be made most readily through comparisons. And such comparisons will inevitably modify any conclusions.
Again Blurring the Colonial Binary is very effective at showing how the cinema was an effective ideological apparatus for the British Empire in Singapore, from the showing of Queen Victoria Jubilee films in 1897 through films of her funeral and King Edward VIII’s coronation and the subsequent Dubar in India. Even the Russo-Japanese War films in which England’s ally—the Japanese—won. But it also seems to me that overall the dissertation exaggerates the homogenization. These films had different resonances in different parts of Southeast Asia. That is, while you offer some new, interesting and valuable information on the cinema in the Philippines, the Philippines was a completely different situation.
The nickelodeon boom—the rapid proliferation of small, stable and cheap movie theaters—occurred in the United States from mid-1905 to mid 1907. This occurred in Manila in 1902-03—earlier than the US and earlier than elsewhere in Southeast Asia—indeed, it is the earliest example of this phenomenon in the world. How and Why? The end of the Filipino-American War in 1902 produced a rapid expansion of cinematografos or cinemas and other forms of theatrical presentation of motion pictures. Moving pictures quickly found a key role in Manila’s theatrical culture. The names for many of these theaters indicated that they were not extensions of the new American regime but offered an alternative public sphere (to evoke Miriam Hansen).
Film screenings were generally complemented by local theater performances. Their precise nature needs to be better understood since “seditious plays,” usually written in Tagalog by Filipinos who opposed the American occupation, flourished in the 1902-1906 period. In many instances, writers, directors and actors were arrested while some writers were convicted and went to jail for violating the Sedition Act, passed on November 4, 1901. The American colonial government declared,
Until it has been officially proclaimed that a state of war or insurrection against the authority or sovereignty of the United States no longer exits in the Philippine Islands, it shall be unlawful for any person to advance orally or by writing or printing or like methods, the independence of the Philippine Islands, or their separation from the United States whether by peaceable or forcible means or to print, publish or circulate any handbill, newspaper, or publication advocating such independence or separation.
Overall the combination of films and plays suggests a mix of cosmopolitan sophistication that was connected to the French films of Méliès and Pathé and an anti-American, nationalist rhetoric that was tied to the live performances (even if the plays were not explicitly advocating independence) Both acted, at least implicitly, as a rejection of the colonizing power.
The situation in Singapore was completely different and again, completely different than the situation of the French in Indo China. Singapore did not exist until it became a British port. As Nadi points out, it was a British creation. All of its residence had come from elsewhere within the last 60 or so years or less. People—Chinese, Europeans, Indians, Arabs and so forth went there to work in the city as business and shipping hub. The British Empire provided them with protection. So the situation in Singapore and the Philippines were in most respects—politically and culturally—polar opposites. Likewise we can understand while the present-day Vietnamese government still sees the cinema of the colonial period as fundamentally French cinema—not Vietnamese in any sense. Cinema was not always simply or primarily a technological novelty as it was in Singapore in the outset. If we consider the Lumières’ early film programs in France, they were clearly about three things: Family, State and Nation. The role of family was generally played by the Lumière family, the state was the military and the nation was represented by monuments such as the Champs Elysee or the Eifel Tower. We might note that these were the three terms of the Vichy government in World War II. Lumière programs had a similar configuration in Vietnam. But such early programs had a very different configuration when they were shown in the Philippines—no military scenes, and views from around the world including scenes of Mexico, a former Spanish colony. Filipinos could see themselves as part of an international community that included nations that had won their freedom from Spain. This is of course, implicit.
So this is one of my most serious criticisms. Blurring the Colonial Binary focuses on Singapore—and it seems to me that it situates the cinema there perfectly. But then you homogenize it by tracing, for instance, the issue of musical performances across Southeast Asia or exhibition practices more generally. The dissertation does suggest differences in European/native relations between the Netherlands East Indies but it seems to me that this is the tip of the iceberg. The blurring of colonial binaries—that is, while relations between the colonizer and colonized in Singapore may have been similar in the Straits Settlements and Hong Kong, they must have been different in Bangkok and certainly the Philippines. More on that in a moment, but I thought I should give you a chance to respond to these reservations.
Tofighian did his master’s thesis on José Nepomuceno, who made his first films in the late 1910s. In his dissertation, Nadi refers to Nepomuceno as the first Filipino filmmaker. In this regard, I have championed Edward Meyer Gross and his wife and movie star Titay Molina who collaborated on a series of feature films in 1912 and beyond––which is not to downplay the role of Nepomuceno. But a couple of things are worth noting. First Gross and Molina really did blur the binaries of colonized and colonizer in all sorts of ways. He wrote and she starred in a play about Jose Rizal in 1905, before making the filmed version of it in 1912: The Life and Death of Jose Rizal. Nevertheless, Nadi identifies the manager of the Walgraph, Filipino M. E. Quiros as the first person who lived in the Philippines and took films there, including one of a procession in honor of Rizal’s death on December 30, 1904. (pp 211-212) These were often local news films that carried a pro-Filipino and indirectly anti-colonial message.
5) So I wonder, why–– having identified the earliest Filipino filmmaker, you make nothing of it—even bury it in your footnotes. Why?
Even in Singapore, I think there could be a deeper probing of social relations such as the fascinating category of Eurasians, which is an obvious manifestation of blurring boundaries. The term in the Philippines is Mestizo. Here again these blurring of boundaries may well have had different associations and values.
 Doreen Fernandez, Palabas: Essays on Philippine Theater History (Ateneo University Press, 1996), 97.
 Fernandez, Palabas, 97-103; Vincente L. Rafael, White Love and Other Events in Filipino History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 39-51; Arthur Stanley Riggs, The Filipino Drama  (Manila: Intramuros Administration, 1981), 40-350; Arthur Stanley Riggs, “The Drama of the Filipinos,” The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 17, No. 67 (Oct. – Dec., 1904), 279-285.
 Public Laws Annotated, quoted in Tomas Hernandez, The Emergence of Modern Drama in the Philippines (1898-1912) (Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1976), 82.
I commend and appreciate my compatriots at the Giornate del Cinema Muto who blog about the films at the end of each day––people like Pamela Hutchinson with her blog Silent London. (Many also use Facebook.) For better or worse, I seem to spend that extra time at the Posta bar across the street. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to offer some kind of response to these eight days of intensive, delightful immersion (October 5-12, 2013).
Unfortunately for the second Giorante in a row, my still camera failed (last year it had just been stolen, this year the battery had stopped taking a charge). So I am relying on images liberated from the Giornate’s websites.
First my public thanks to all those who made this possible–starting with David Francis, Livio Jacob, Piera Patat (aka Saint Piera), Paolo Cherchi Usai …and the list goes on. The festival has never been better.
I could not help but notice that for the second or third year in a row, I was the only Yale faculty member in attendance. So this post began as an email addressed to my departmental colleagues, written largely on the plane home. Here it is–more or less–with some added images.
It is always a challenge to capture the essentials of the Giornate del Cinema Muto. Since I thought of you many times over the eight days that I was in Pordenone, I decided to offer you a quick (if lengthy) summary. It is impossible to escape a sense of anxiety if not guilt for taking a week’s sequester in the middle of the semester. I always wonder if it is justified for all sorts of reasons, not just in terms of teaching but leaving the family for 10 days. Nevertheless, with Silent Cinema an essential part of my portfolio (ie teaching Film Historiography to grad students who are joint with many different departments), each year I come away convinced that this once-a-year crash course is essential if I am to stay up to date. So…
There were faculty from every major graduate program at Pordenone: Yuri Tsivian (Chicago), Linda Williams, Anne Nesbitt, Tony Kaes (UC-Berkeley), Allie Fields (UCLA), Laura Serna (USC), Dan Streible (NYU), Richard Abel, Giorgio Bertellini (Michigan). Phil Rosen did not show and there was no one from Harvard; but there were many profs from other US universities (Richard Koszarski, Peter Lehman and Tami Williams who received tenure on the fourth day of the festival, etc.) Obviously universities from around the world were well represented. I had dinner with Ian Christie, Vanessa Toulmin, Christine Gledhill, Kevin Brownlow (who is definitely not at a university), Ansje Van Buesekom–lunch with Andre Gaudreault and Martin Loiperdinger. I spent time with John Fullerton and various students from Stockholm University where I taught two summers ago. Of course there were lots of graduate students there from the US, including our own Danny Fairfax. Yale Film Studies major Laura Horak, who got her Ph.D. from UC-Berkeley and has a post-doc at Stockholm University, was there: she was just hired for a tenure track job at Carleton University. Of course, many film archivists attended: not only Paolo Cherchi Usai but Pat Loughney (despite the US government shut down). Chris Horak (UCLA Film & Television Archives) and Brian Meacham (Yale Film Study Center) missed this year but will hopefully be there next. (Brian wrote at least one of the program notes.)
It was a wonderful festival this year. For me, the high point was perhaps the screenings of some 70 films that were made for the Cinematographe Joly-Normandin in 1896-97. I had known about the Cinematographe Joly, which was a French machine that was exploited in the US by Eberhard Schneider at the Eden Musee. However, I had thought it was just another version of the standard 35mm projector, like R. W. Paul’s Animatograpahe. In fact, it was a five sprocket 35mm system which created a different shaped image. Only films taken for the Cinematographe Joly could be shown on it (and vice versa). So it had much in common with the Lumière Cinematographe, the Biograph system or Gaumont’s 60mm film system. This was really a surprise and requires some adjustments in grasping the cinema landscape of the novelty period. (The Cinematographe Joly was indirectly involved in the Charity Bazaar Fire in Paris of 1897.) Camille Blot-Wellens, who curated the program, has also written a 200-page study of the company and system. It is being published in Spanish on the Internet but it seems important to have her effort in a language more of us can read, so I put her in touch with John Libbey who seems ready to publish an English language version.
Then there was a Lubin film: The New Operator (1911). It was preserved by Lobster Films and is something I now plan to show in my Hollywood Novel, Hollywood Film course since Serge Bromberg has offered to send me a file. A novice cameraman is hired by the Lubin Studio and tries to shoot a variety of scenes (including a Kiss scene), all of which end in disaster.
Likewise Hollywood Snapshots, taken in Hollywood in 1922, in which a Rube comes to Hollywood to witness all the scandal he had hear about. His expectations are repeatedly dashed. These were obviously my territory, but…
I thought of Katie Trumpener quite a bit as I followed the strand Sealed Lips: Sweden’s Forgotten Years. Katie has just taught a course on Swedish cinema and was in Sweden this past summer. We would have had a lot to talked about. Director Gustaf Molander was very much in control of material in films such as Hans Engelska Fru (Matrimony/ Discord). A British widow, played by Lil Dagover (this was a Swedish/German co-production), must again marry for money–specifically a Swedish lumber king who has come into possession of her family’s debt–and so save the family from ruin. With many twists and unexpected turns it all worksout but the process of getting there is remarkable.
A film set in the seafaring world, Den Starkaste (The Strongest,1929), spent much of its time in the unfamiliar world of polar ice. There is a rescue scene in which the protagonist races from ice flow to ice flow that far exceeds the scene it evokes––from Way Down East.
One film I particularly enjoyed was Sweden’s first feature sound film: Konstgjorda Svensson (Artificial Svensson). It has an ironic, somewhat absurdist take on technology–including the technology of the sound film. Swedish comedian Fridolf Rhudin plays Svensson, an inventor of Rube Goldberg-like devices. The film begins with a intimately romantic embrace between him and a woman, which Rhudin (who has been doing the kissing) interrupts in order to deliver a speech about the sound film, which is reminiscent of Will Hays’ intro to the Vitaphone program. As someone whose face is so expressive, he waxes eloquently about his dilemma–even evoking Shakespeare (“the silent film or the sound film, that is the question”). And there are musical sequences inserted at several points in the film––mostly of banjo playing. Svensson’s rival is a skilled banjo player and we get a sync version of that, again very much like a Vitaphone insert from The Jazz Singer. Then Svensson, whose banjo efforts are total failures, sings and plays while faking sync to a record. A second effort to fake sync has him play the banjo and lip-syc as a full orchestra accompanies the singer. Svensson, who had also invented ways to avoid army service, finds himself in love with the daughter of a colonel. And he ends up joining the army as a stand-in for his best friend who needs some extra days to chase a girl. So it is an army farce a la Jean Renoir’s Tire au Flanc. These are must see films in the Swedish canon I think!
There were also some Czech films built around the movie star Anny Ondra but I found their light comedy to be light-weight and used them for breaks at a certain point.
For Brigitte Peucker, who periodically teaches a course on Weimar Cinema, the German films were also fascinating. There was Lupa Pick’s Shattered (1921), in which an inspector comes to an isolated railway station and seduces/rapes the daughter of the station master, which destroys the family and leaves the daughter alone, vulnerable and desperate. It is an expressionistic film, stripped of subplots, combining slow or almost death-like acting with expressionist lighting.
The most interesting group of films were by Gerhard Lamprecht (1897-1974), which dealt with the underbelly of Berlin life in ways that are powerful. Die Verrufenen (1925, The Outcasts, released in The US as The Slums of Berlin) follows a man who is released from prison for perjury (he says almost nothing about his crime until late in the film when he says that sometimes perjury is necessary to retain one’s honor). Rejected by his father and his fiancée and unable to get a job, he attempts suicide only to be rescued by Emma, a streetwalker. The whole plot is given in the film notes of the Giornate’s fabulous catalog, but it is the small details and moments that make this film so moving. For instance, he spends a night at a facility for the homeless where someone tells him where he can get some work sewing. Finally a job! They go together and at the end of the day, he discovers that payment in only in the form of cheap vodka or the like. That’s enough for his alcoholic compatriots. In Die Unehelichen (1926, Illegitimate Children aka Children of No Importance), their illegitimacy is never actually mentioned until late in the film. As with The Outcasts, it is a way of exposing social inequities. So there is a didactic quality at moments but with a humanistic eye that is kept at sufficient distance so it seems to escape sentimentality. Three children of no importance are in a household where the man is an abusive drunkard and the wife scrimps on the money she is given to care for them. One girl gets sick and the wife does not bring in a doctor until the girl’s case has become so extreme that she dies. Another girl ends up in the countryside with a miller’s family. The older boy is first rescued by a well-to-do woman but then his father appears and he is taken to work on a barge. Only when he tries to drown himself does his father realize he can’t be used for heavy labor and let’s him go. Apparently the Communist Party found the film too concerned with individuals rather than mapping out the whole social problem in a way that would call for radical action. From this hard left viewpoint there was a huge gap between these stories and the actual circumstances of the many, many children in this condition. Outrage, however, strikes me as fundamental to the film, just subsumed. The happy outcomes seem obviously atypical. My own reaction was that films along these lines should be made in the US today. In today’s environment, they would surely be seen as quite radical. Lamprecht stayed in Germany throughout the war where he continued to direct, but nothing that –from the little available on the web–seems like Nazi propaganda. And he made at least one rubble film after the war. So I’d like to know more about him.
Another Lamprecht film, Menschen Untereinander (1926, People Among Each Other) followed the different lives of people living in an apartment building. Characters are astutely drawn and the desperation that many face is revealed. Nevertheless, all turns out well in the end for all except those who deserve to be punished. It is impressive ensemble acting in which there are no stars–not unlike some of Renoir’s films. Particularly with its endings, the film seems too neat, too pat as if the building becomes a utopian refuge due in part to interventions of the daughter of the jeweler who occupies the ground floor. Perhaps Unter der Laterne (1928, Under the Lantern) was my favorite. A woman is kicked out of the house by her overly strict and unforgiving father. With a way station in cabaret, she is hounded by her father who wants to institutionalize her, forcing her into the underground with a new identity, followed by prostitution and death. Apparently these will be coming out as a DVD set but it was great to see them on the big screen.
And then for our Japanese film sensi––Prof Aaron Gerow. After a heavy Japanese program last year, there was little that was offered this year. One of the high points was a benshi performance by Ichiro Kataoka, a student of Midori Sawato, whom I had written about many years ago after my first visit to Japan with Before the Nickelodeon. Billed as “Japan’s charismatic new star benshi,” he accompanied fragments of two Samuri films starring Denjiro Okochi.
For John MacKay and Katy Clark, whose courses include ones on Russian and Soviet film: a major strand of the festival involved Russian and Ukrainian films. In particular, many of us discovered there was a Mother before Pudovkin’s Mother. If it was an influence, it was only to show what should not be done or should be totally reconceived. (There was also a trailer for Vertov’s The Eleventh Year!) The importance of Pudovkin’s Mother was obvious in several Ukranian films about young revolutionaries and their more conservative parents who only change their political stripes after their children have been brutally killed by the forces of reaction.
Dva Dni (1927, Two Days) was one of my favorites in the festival. A family abandons its country estate during the Civil War as the Red Army approaches. The loyal caretaker, who is to told to bury the family silver, is left behind to protect what he can. It turns out that the head of the red detachment is his son, who obviously does not share his politics. Their meeting is awkward. Then the adolescent son of the landed gentry shows up, having been separated from his family. The caretaker hides him and protects him. When the Red army temporarily retreats, the caretaker’s son is told to stay behind. The landlord’s son then turns him over to the white army, and he is soon executed. Now the father starts a fire in the palatial abode and locks the doors: the white army generals, the gentry’s son and the entire mansion burn to the ground.
Other films, including Dovzhenko’s Khlib (Bread, 1929)–shown at the festival with several other Dovzhenko films, follow a similar pattern. Another affecting example would be Nichnyi Viznyk (1929, The Night Coachman). These are just a reminder of the profound influence of Pudovkin’s masterpiece.
There were also some interesting if minor Georgian films such as Dilis Ati Tsuti (1931, Ten Minutes in the Morning) which argues that exercise is need to counter the adverse effects of labor on the body. It seemed positively Vertovian in its inspiration. Moreover, there was a good sampling of Soviet animation films from the 1920s, many of which reminded me of Vertov’s Soviet Toys. This was certainly true for Durman Demiana (1925, Demain’s Drug), made by one of his collaborators. If I am keeping titles and films straight, this short borrowed a Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend story line and used it for political ends: the counter-revolutionary is an alcoholic. Other animated films such as Interplanetary Revolution (1924) were astonishing.
Dudley Andrew: Alas, the French films were all outside your period in that the were made before 1910. There were two recent documentaries, however: Mussidora, la dixieme muse and Natan–The Untold Story of French Cinema’s Forgotten Genius (2013).
Penny Marcus & Francesco Casetti: There were some Italian silents but most of them were shown at times that did not work for me–a symptom of the very full program this year. However, the major book of the festival was Giorgio Bertellini’s Italian Cinema: A Reader (2013), for which I provided a blurb at the last minute:
From Giorgio Bertellini’s brilliant introduction, which provides a compelling framework for re-evaluating Italian silent cinema, to the final essays, which invite the reader to become an active explorer of this rich cultural heritage, Italian Silent Cinema: A Reader offers a compelling, multi-faceted matrix for all those ready to grapple seriously with a crucial national cinema of the silent era. Most importantly, its many insights into Italian film culture necessarily require a reevaluation of French, American and other European cinemas of the silent era and alter our understandings of the ways early cinema embodied conceptions of modernity.–Charles Musser, Yale University
Giorgio seemed quite happy with it!
For my fellow Americanists J.D. Connor, Ron Gregg and Michael Kerbel: Viewing those films within our area of specialization was not too painful. William Wellman’s Beggars of Life (1928) featured the always fabulous Louise Brooks while Richard Arlen kept up his end when it came to exuding sexuality. Wallace Berry wasn’t too shoddy either. It was a preview of the depression to come. A couple on the lam, riding the rails with the tramps. And every one of them would like a little action with Louise Brooks. Wellman’s film, made right after Wings, it was a great way to start the festival.
Of course the coup of the festival was a world premiere of Orson Welles’ Too Much Johnson. It constituted a feature length’s worth of material shot to be integrated into the comedic play Too Much Johnson that Welles was directing (ca 1938). The integration never happened, but Citizen Kane certainly did not come out of nowhere. The film, over cranked and silent, was made by someone who already possessed a sense of cinematic possibilities. Among the film’s many treats: Welles’s use of space and and the young Joseph Cotton showing potential as a comedian.
And then there was a film for the entire Yale faculty–not just those in Film Studies: Hold ‘em Yale (1928), an insightful assessment of student priorities during the mid 1920s. Certainly it reminds us, claims to the contrary, that the amount of time that students spent hitting the books may have been even more limited in the past than it is today. One might conclude that there is no grade inflation, after looking at this picture. If these students got gentlemen’s C’s, our students deserve the A- average they have come to expect. A major claim to fame for Hold ‘em Yale is that it was the first film in which the new Yale Bowl appears. I think Brian Meacham mentioned that we might soon have a chance to look at this film in the WHC Auditorium.
If so, it might be worth taking a cue from the Giornate which effectively paired the film with Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman (1925). You may remember a passage in Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run?, in which Sammy Glick is watching a bunch of football pictures to see what ideas he can steal. The producers of Hold ‘em Yale were early Sammy prototypes. who only bothered to see one college picture before making Hold ‘em Yale–and it was Lloyd’s.
Anyway I thought I should give a brief report and also remind you that there are lots of reasons for you, my dear colleagues to attend. I am ready to hold the academic line for Yale in this regard, but really this should be a team sport!
Now about Laura Poitras. She is one of the most extraordinary people I have ever had the pleasure to meet. She has gotten some attention recently in the New York Times Sunday Magazine in Peter Mass’s cover article “How Laura Poitras Helped Snowden Spill His Secrets.”
One thing the article failed to mention was that Laura taught at Yale where all the adoring students in her class agreed that her course was “excellent.” (That is 5 out of 5.) Shockingly the university defunded the position in the midst of its budgetary crisis and I had to take over from her. It was painful but someone has to keep the course going and keep the slot occupied until the position is refunded–and Laura can come back to refill it. Who knows if that will happen now. Of course, I hope that it will. In any case, I loved the photo that the NYT published of her. It captures a certainly soulful serenity that is such an important part of who she is (or am I just reading this into the photo). Well you can decide:
Meanwhile Jeremey Scahill came to Yale to screen Dirty Wars as part of the new Windham Campbell Prizes Festival. I was just fortunate that Michael Kelleher let me piggyback this particular event onto the series I put together.
Dirty Wars is a powerful, rigorous film that reveals the hidden brutality and indifference of a imperialist government which has become dangerous arbitrary and arrogant. In a way it is a compelling reinvention of classic TV documentary report in which a producer works with a reporter on a story. Scahill is that reporter and Richard Rowley is the producer. The documentary’s brutal account is balanced by Scahill’s photogenic qualities. His eyes somehow manage to communicate the complex history of what he has seen and experienced.
After the screening, in a powerful speech before the Q & A, Scahill began by expressing his gratitude for the week-long series of events. Then he condemned the university’s readiness to hire General McCrystal whom he characterized as a war criminal.
Here are a few photos from last night (Sept 12th):
After the event was over I handed Jeremy Scahill a copy of the “It’s All Classfied” poster and asked him what he thought was in store for Laura Poitras.
As it turns out, he is working with her––a fact that would soon be in the newspapers. He thinks she’ll be back to show her amazing documentary at high profile film festivals. But which ones? And what will happen when she enters the country? Anyway, her much awaited documentary provides the structuring absence for this series.
Next up was Alex Gibney with We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (2013), which is an extraordinary film. A Yale graduate, Alex has screened his films here over the years and has received our Film Studies Program Award––in fact he notified and accepted it the same day he received his Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)–but early enough in the day so that he knew he’d won something that day–and our award proved to be the warm up and perhaps good luck charm. I’ve been watching his films whenever and wherever possible: Yale, Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, Stranger Than Fiction, and the local Criterion theater where his documentary The Armstrong Lie will be playing Thanksgiving Week.
Alex came up to Yale to show We Steal Secrets. As is often the case, a few of us saw the film beforehand and then took Alex to dinner while the film was screening.
Alex’s films keep getting more complex and sophisticated. And they keep getting better. I was so impressed by Client 9 and his ability to get Eliot Spitzer to talk–and also the solution for filming an interview with one of his prostitutes who would not talk–using an actress to perform/reenact her interview. This mastery certainly continued to develop in the case of We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, which I found extremely illuminating on a practical level. It documented Julian Assange’s past–how he cut his teeth in Australia as a young hacktivist and clarified other issues that have gotten lost in the politics. This would include the incident involving two Swedish women with whom he had a night of hot sex. Assange has certainly been in the news, but his story as well as the Chelsea/Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks narrative has been largely lost in the claims and counter claims of any given moment. In any case, while Spitzer decided that it was better to talk with Gibney than for Alex to make a film where he refused to cooperate, Assange came to the opposite conclusion. Not surprising perhaps, given Assange’s (often justified) paranoia, Gibney’s challenge was to construct a coherent, insightful and in some real sense objective/balanced account while finding innovative solutions to the fundamental problem of making a film about two people who would not (Assange) or cannot (Manning) talk to him. Gibney writes and speaks the narration–in a way that gives the film a personal voice. However, he does not appear in the film. Rather, he has a stand-in or counter-part of sorts, a filmmaker who did have considerable access to Assange for many years: Aussie filmmaker Mike Davis. And if Assange and Manning don’t talk to Gibney, Adrian Lamo does. Former hacktivist Lamo was the person Manning trusted with his life, and Lamo turned him in to the Feds. (His exposure was not due to some tell-tale flaw involving WikiLeaks as I had somehow assumed.) Lamo is a tragic and pathetic villain in this film even as Manning is the tragic and vulnerable hero. Assange is something else––flawed, brilliant, charismatic, paranoid, self-obsessed, often heroic and more often self-destructive. Revealing this ambiguity is one of the film’s most profound achievements.
Perhaps it is not entirely surprising that Assange denounced the film sight unseen, given his refusal to cooperate in its making. However the film has been attacked by others who should know better, including Chris Hedges at TruthDig. In an article “We Steal Secrets: State Agitprop,” he claims that the film “interprets acts of conscience and heroism by Assange and Manning as misguided or criminal.” This does not seem to be the case. Certainly Gibney demythologizes Assange but he is hardly on the side of NSA (National Security Agency––which does not mean he won’t speak to them). The Hollywood Reporter has recently reported:
While Gibney first dismissed Assange and WikiLeaks’ attacks on his film, he now believes it did have an affect on the film’s box-office performance. Released by Focus Features in May, it grossed just $166,243, never playing in more than 24 theaters. “It was more effective than I thought,” Gibney said. “He caused preemptively a lot of people not to see it, which when you think about it is kind of ironic. Instead of saying, ‘Go see this film and then read my commentary,’ it was, ‘Don’t see this film.’ Not exactly the transparency agenda.
Gibney has just responded with a detailed response to Assange’s critique of We Steal Secrets, which was based on an incomplete transcript of an outdated version of the film),. It is entitled “The WikiLeaks Organization’s Annotated Transcript, with Response from the Filmmakers.” Warning: Be careful about printing the response. It is over 260 pages!
Louisa de Cossy kindly videotaped the Q & A, which is posted here:
Finally I asked Alex about Laura Poitras. Turns out that they were both at Julian Assange’s 40th birthday party. To some degree, they were competing for his attention and cooperation. In the end, she was successful while he was not. However, it meant that Alex used these limitations to make a fascinating film. Adversity can truly be the mother of adversity. Moreover, with the emergence of Edward Snowden, Assange may have a much smaller role to play in Laura’s forthcoming film.
Alex also remembered running into Laura on the security line at the airport. She warned him that she would be taken aside and extensively searched and so he should not wait for her. Of course, Laura was right.
Robb Moss had to postpone, which may have been just as well. It was a frantic week in New Haven as well.
Our trip had three, maybe four dimensions. Without them, it would not have made sense. And together it made a memorable and rewarding visit–certainly the most successful of our trips as a family. First, we wanted to see family, but mostly particularly we wanted John Carlos to reconnect with his extended family and also with daily life in the Philippines. Core family was in the Cebu City area. Picture taking was, of course, required:
John Carlos and Threese spent several weeks in Manlapay in the Southern part of Cebu Island. Her mother grew up there, and it is one of two towns composed primarily of relatives. John Carlos went to the local primary school, where classes are conducted in Cebano. His teacher was a relative, the principal was a relative and many of his classmates were second cousins.
I managed to spend a few days there a the end of our stay. We stayed at another Aunt’s house–she was in Texas but other family members were living in half of the house, so we moved in.
That Monday we descended on the school with video and still cameras.
We had visited Manlapay once before––for about an hour when John Carlos was one and a half. The roads were consistently tortuous–almost impassable then. Everyone but the driver (me) had to get out numerous times to lighten the car and push. This time the roads were much improved.
The drive from Dalaguate to Mantalongon, the market center for vegetables in this area (it is known as the vegetable basket of Cebu), was quite easy due. We stopped to see one of Threese’s uncles, who owns a bakery and ended up doing some filming. A little like typical tourists, we were impressed with the
large open shed where farmers were carrying in the cabbages, carrots and so forth. The weather was cold and windy: people were wearing jackets–not at all what one thinks of this part of the world. We unexpectedly ran into one of Threese’s aunt–a woman who had been reasonably well off until her husband was killed by one of the buses that barrel along the highway––for which she received no compensation. Now she is raising her child by selling fish in this market town.
They were busy building paved roads from Dalaguete to Manlapay, but the work was being done in noncontinuous sections. We had more difficulty going from Mantalongon to Manlapay–and later back again. On our way out, we were stopped by several different crews who were widening the road.
In this mountainous countryside, the roads are often treacherous. The most poignant spot was one I remembered from our previous visit: a narrow curvy section along the edge of a cliff. This is where the truck that was carrying coal and Threese’s grandmother went off the road, killing her and everyone else. She was on her way to Cebu City (a six hour drive) with vegetables to sell and to buy a wedding cake for a relative. That section of the road was being widened as we left:
We had to wait for an hour or so–until the lunch break–while they dynamited the mountain above the road. Travelers piled up. A few make-shift stores had been opened. And once again, Threese met a relative–a cousin this time.
A fourth goal for our visit was to have a little vacation time and to see a part of the Philippines that was unfamiliar. We ended up deciding to go to Siargo. We took a ferry––a quite primitive ferry at that––from Cebu to Surigao City on the northern tip of Mindanao, then another smaller ferry to Dapa on the island of Siargo–and on to General Luna.
The beach area. John Carlos quickly made friends.
We went on two different expeditions to nearby islands. We were very happy to be there.
The Sky at Sunset, on our way back home.
Threese Serana and I have been working on a documentary, which I’ve been calling Visa Wives (she likes to call it Filipina Wives). We’ve been working on it for close to a year (but done virtually nothing this fall due to other commitments). It’s been a subject we have been talking about for awhile because it routinely generates negative responses: “you mean mail order brides” is pretty typical. Threese did not come to the US on a Fiancée Visa but that was more circumstantial than anything else. And we certainly get the not-so-nice vibes that radiate from this assumption with reasonable frequency. When Threese’s sister announced that she was getting married to an American and was coming here on a Fiancee Visa, this propelled us into filmmaking action. We have three couples–plus ourselves inevitably–on whom we are focusing. Her sister and husband Stephen, Threese’s best friend Fleur Harris, who also came on a Fiancée Visa, and one of Threese’s cousins who has US citizenship and was bringing over Welchie, now his wife, on a FV.
This past summer we went to the Philippines and filmed the back story if you will. The overwhelming number of Filipinos who come to the US on Fiancé Visas are women and the largest number of Filipinas on VFs go to the US compared to other countries. Plus the largest number of women coming to the US on VFs are from the Philippines. All Filipinas must attend an one day seminar at the Commission of Filipinos Overseas in either Cebu or Manila.
So we filmed a number of related scenes, including a long interview with Supervisor Ivy Mirvalles. We were impressed by their insights, dedication and willingness to talk openly about the issues. We also talked to some of the women. As is so often the case, we were moved by their stories, which did not easily conform to the “mail order bride” scenario.
Nick Deocampo also pitched in and did some shooting for us at the mall, using his small camera. It was amazing to watch him move through the space with remarkable grace and elegance.
If the guys seem to be behind the camera a lot, well that’s because Threese was doing the crucial work in front of the camera. And sometimes she had a chance to photograph us, but not so much vice versa.