2011. április 14., csütörtök

Chronicle of a Summer

Jean Rouch & Edgar Morin - Chronicle of a Summer

Chronicle of a Summer is a film about a summer in Paris and in St. Tropez in 1960. The film follows the lives of several characters and try to tell their stories. All characters have some kind of special aspect; a jewish gilr who survived the holocaust, an immigrant Italian girl, a French labaourer and a black immigrant from French Africa all have fascinating stories about their life expereiences in France and Paris.
Rouch in his films wants to sinthesyze the ideas of Robert Flaherty and Dziga Vertov and hence create a bridge between cinéma-vérité and cinéma-direct. Therefore Chronicle of a Summer is a film that tries to bring in the personal reflexivity of the characters and build on their subjectivities in order to get a sense of the reality of their lives. Hence, the film moves along the fine line between fiction and ethnography that Steven Feld calls 'filmic ethnographic fiction'. From this definition too it is perfectly clear that Rouch is very preoccupied with the problems of subjectivity and reflexivity. In the beginning of the film he and Morin discusses whether it is possible to act natural in front of the camera or not. Thus the film can be considered as an experiment in making a movie about real life by focusing on people reflecting upon themselves and discussing their subjectivities.

Chronicle of a Summer is very different to other ethnographic or sociological films in a sense that Rouch and Morin kind of guide the characters, who are not actors, by giving them current topics that were very prevalent in France in the 60s, and after filming them discussing those topics they make them reflect on their own performances up until that time. As Feld states the film: "...combines the techniques of drama, fiction, provocation, and self-conscious reflexivity and critique that Rouch developed from previous films. In my opinion Rouch managed to create a film that doesn't want to pretend to be completely objective but still present the realities of its characters and the social problems of that time perfectly. I got a very clear feeling about the life in Paris during the 60s and about the sociological and international problems that interested people back then. The ideas of exploitation of the labouring classes, the brutal past that had to be yet faced and the slow collapse of the French colonal empire topped with huge waves of immigrants from ex-colonies in Africa are all incorporated into the film. This gives a great insight into the life back then and into the lives of the characters.
The film is full with constructed scenes, like the scene where the girl who survived the Holocaust walks slowly in Paris telling her and her family's story before and after the 2nd World War, reflecting on her own feelings about the historical events. Based on these parts of the film one could argue that it's not an ethnographic piece of work, I would argue with that. I think this film gives a full and real picture of French society during tat time.
The other very interesting aspect of the movie is the end where Rouch and Morin make the characters reflect upon their performance as if they were actors and actresses. It was very interesting to see what they thought of themselves and each other. They criticise each other when they felt that instead of being truthful one of them was being overly dramatic or played a fake role in certain scenes.
I, for one, felt that the film and the characters were very truthful and showed an objective picture of France in many ways. The participation of the film makers in the film and the discussion about whether someone can act naturally in front of the camera brought the characters even closer to me and their stories became more real.

Gandhi's Children

MacDougall - Gandhi's Children

Gandhi's Children is probably the most famous film of David MacDougall. The movie takes place in an shelter for homeless children in India and shows the hardships of the lives of children living there and their parents.

The film shows MacDugall's approach, that he describes in his writings in Visual Anthropology and the Ways of Knowing, to ethnographic cinema very well. MacDougall is one of the biggest advocates of developing a visual language for anthropology so anthropologist would use modern techniques like photography and cinematography for their own value not just to record data. However he also warns social scientists not to use visual as a substitute for the verbal but to complement it. He developed his own way of filming different social problems within diffrent cultures that is very human and shows an initmate understanding of the cultural context in which these problems exist.

MAcDougall argues for transcultural cinema in ethnographic film making. For him, and that's clear from this film too, it's not enough to go somewhere and film different cultures but think about our western audience the whole time. It's also not enough to just show the audience a different culture without any kind of explanation or relatioship with the subjects of the film. Therefore the biggest difference between Gardner's Forest of Bliss and Gandhi's Children is that the local language is subtitled and the people being filmed have interactions with the camera several times. MacDougall doesn't try to force a false objecticity onto his films, he tries to be self-reflexive, which means that he has just as much contact with the subject of his films as with his audience. As he puts it: "If I am self-reflexive, that self-reflexivity must be about the relationship between us [him and the subjects], not a way of speaking behind my hand to some foreign audience."
From this quote too it is prefectly clear that for MacDougall it is not enough to just go somewhere and film 'objectively' what one sees. An ethnographic film maker should build an intimate,self-reflexive and interpretative relationship with his subject so he can show his audience the reality of the things he had filmed.
This approach is very clear in Gandhi's children. The audience can easily follow the events in the film because of the subtitles, they can get a sense of being there through the intimate cultural knowledge of MacDougall who had selected events and scenes from the kids' lives that are pivotal in understanding the culture in India. Also, the people on the film interact with the camera several times, explaining MacDougal what they are doing and why they are doing it. Surprisingly, this doesn't really bring a level of subjectivity to the film that'd be annoying, rather it brings a different type of objectivity than the one in Forest of Bliss; and in my opinion MacDougall's approach brings India's culture to his audiences a lot closer and in a much more digestable way.

Salesmen, Titicut Follies and Forest of Bliss

This week it was time for us to submerge into so-called observational cinema through three different films. First was the Salesmen by the Maysles brothers, the second was Titicut Follies by Wiseman and the last one was Forest of Bliss by Gardner.
Salesmen is about Bible salesmen who go all over America to sell special editions of the Bible. This film is one of the prototypes of American observational cinema. The camera and the film makers are basically invisible and they try to observe and film the subjects natural behaviour. As Anna Grimshaw says in her article 'Rethinking Observational Cinema' this was a revolution in ethnographic film making that tried to make visual anthropology more scientific by not creating a narrative and letting things just happen in front of the lense of the camera. As she puts it, observational cinema is "...a form of scientism in which a detached camera served to objectify and dehumanise the human subjects of its gaze."

This aesthetic definition clearly clearly fits Salesmen and Forest of Bliss but not Titicut Follies. Titicut Follies was shot in an asylum for the criminally insane in the state of New York and it tries to explore the fine line between normality and insanity. Wiseman's film has elements that fit observational cinema perfectly still it has a very clear message and agenda to criticise psychiatry and institutionalisation of people. Through these aspects Titicut Follies fits the anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s, 1970s too. Many social scientists and psychiatrists, led by Thomas Szasz

questioned the methods and the validity of psychiatry and the existence of mental illness during these decades, and Wiseman does the same thing in this film. He uses methods that make his film look like observational cinema but the editing and the narrative that is sewn into the film send a clear message. He questions the normality of the staff of the asylum and contrasts it with the insanity of the patients or inmates. His portrayal of the place, the interaction between people and the brutality of several methods make the audience question the normality of the personnel. Wiseman tries to show that mental illness is socially created many times and that normality is highly subjective.

We don't really see any of that in Gardner's Forest of Bliss which was the worst movie experience I've ever had. It wasn't my worst experience because it is bad bad film necessarily, but the way it was done was so in-your-face that I felt like my senses got attacked. I felt violated by the things I was being shown and the sounds that were very overdone on purpose.

Forest of Bliss shows the life of an Indian city without any kind of explanation about the events and things that are happening in front of our eyes. We have some main characters like the slightly crazy healer or the very antipathetic guy who ran the place where people took their dead to get chremated, and the film has a loose narrative that follows the events that lead up to people's funerals. Although many people argued in class that the film was about life and death, light and dark, I didn't really see that. I got the feeling from the film that life in India is all about death and nothing else.

Which wouldn't have been a problem, on the contrary, I liked the film up until around the 50th minute, by tha time it was perfectly clear what the film was about, I got the whole picture in my head and I just wanted it to stop; the scenery, the sounds, the events; everything. By the end of the first hour of the film I thought: I get your point, just leave me alone.
I think for me that fact that nothing was explained made the whole thing worse. I was shown horrible poverty, squalor, death and they were all presented in a very emotionless and brutally stripped way without any kind of explanatory tools. Because of this I hated the film but I can say that it very well fits the criteria of observational cinema that has been very widely criticised.
I've already mentioned Grimshaw's article, but I haven't mentioned her critique of observational cinema. In her, and other's, opinion pure observation that records natural behaviour is impossible.

The subjects will always be conscious about being filmed and therefore the bedrock of observational cinema is fundamentally flawed. That's why many argue for a different aesthetic approach to ethnographic film making where the makers acknowledge the fact that they are in some kind of interaction with their subjects. Some kind of interpretation aproach or a more reflexive, self-conscious approach to visual anthropology that is advocated by MacDougall or Nichols.

Vertov Meets The Cinematic Orchestra to Lead in Hukkle and Angel Makers

Dziga Vertov: man with a Movie Camera

First of all I have to say that I loved Vertov's film, Man with a Movie Camera and the soundtrack done by The Cinematic Orchestra. I felt that the film was amazingly modern considering how old it is and the equipment that was used to make it. In my opinion Vertov manage to represent his famous kino eye and show the world that there is an option to shoot films differently.

In the film the camera plays the main role and Vertov turns this machine into a living being that's pivotal in order to show people things that are completely invisible for the naked eye. The camera takes us everywhere, from the city to the mines, from the beach to the factory and from the sea to the top of bridges. Vertov's mission to put machines into the nucleus of film making is beautifully accomplished in this film. And still there is something amazingly human and uplifting about this peace of art. We are invited to a journey into people's lives and we can watch a city sleeping silently and then filling up with life slowly as the day starts. We are invited to watch and observe every aspect of the human experience from birth to death, from work to playing games and from marriage to divorce. Furthermore, all during these things Vertov using techniques that give a fantastically modern feel to the whole film.
Vertov also incorporated the making of the film into the whole movie. We are taken to the editing desk and then we are dragged into the celluloid to see what's on it. A fantastic journey between the story and the making of the story. Even though, as I have mentioned, Vertov's goal was to put the camera into the central role, I think that maybe unintendedly he created a hero out of the cameraman too. I felt this way especially in the scenes when the cameraman is walking with the camera on his shoulder and the crowd opens up for them, or when he climbs high places to shoot things from up above.
There's also a propagandistic aspect to the movie even though it's not őrevalent enough to become annoying. The life that it shows is mostly full with happy people enjoying life, work and pastime. Sadness hardly ever shows up in the film and the whole movie is filled with some kind of joyous gloriousness that sweeps away any kind of bad feelings. A portrayal of the early years of the communist Soviet Union that is very misleading in retrospect.
All in all, Vertov reaches his goal with this great film. He emphasises the heroic aspects of the camera and the ways we can see the world better through the lense than through our own eyes. The kino eye prevails.

Hukkle & Angelmakers

It was very interesting to see a film and a documentary about the same events that happened in Hungary between the two world wars. Hukkle and Angelmakers both explore the murders committed by housewives who killed more than 200 men. Hukkle works with fairly regular techniques to show the events whilst Angelmakers uses a documentaristic approach. Hukkle is played mostly by locals but professional actors play in it too, on the other hand Angelmakers works with interviews with locals, narration and historical facts in the end.

So we have two completely different films with two completely different approaches to the same story. I found it weird and funny but I felt that Hukkle was more true to the feeling of the whole story even though we didn't find out the exact facts while watching it. We didn't find out how many men were killed, who were the killers, who was the ring leader or what was the aftermath of the events. Still I felt that the melancholic undertone of the film and the way the camera always moved through things to get behind the events or places while we were watching them brought a sense of mistery but also truthfulness and sadness to the film. Since there are no written scripts in Hukkle that actors would recite, the whole story is told through pictures and those pictures are amazingly beautiful. The story slowly unfolds in front of our eyes to the rythm of a hiccup and it takes time for the audience to realise what's going on; but when you realise it the whole film becomes very sad, tense, misterious and exciting. Hukkle also gives a great insight into the village's life and into the grievances that followed the deaths. Hukkle doesn't want to judge or to have a moral, it just shows a gtrotesque artistic picture of the events that mirrors some kind of objectivity.
On the other hand Angelmaker is supposed to be a completely objective documentary about the husband killings. The makers go to one of the villages where the murders happened and interview people and tell the historic facts. Still I felt that even though all the aspects of a documentary were implemented in the film, it was quite subjective. The film shows a fairly positive picture of the women who killed their husbands and tries to spur some sympathy in the audience towards the killers by arguing that most of them were drunk, aggressive bastards who beat their wives on a regular basis. I'm not saying that these things are not true and that one cannot feel even a crumble of sympathy towards those women, but the almost complete lack of voices in the movie that would condemn their actions is quite weird from a film that shows itself as a documentary and uses all the filming and story-telling techniques of documentary films.
In sum, for me the biggest epiphany, seeing these two films, was the fact that a visual presentation of events can be very objective and true even if it is presented artistically, and that it can be very subjective and packed with hidden agendas even if it is presented in a documentaristic way.

2011. február 21., hétfő

Taiwan Calling

Well, now that we have seen both parts of the Taiwan Calling exhibition in both Műcsarnok and Ludwig Múzeum, I can put together a few thoughts about the whole thing and especially two pieces: Jao Chia-En's Proposals for 30 flags and coat of arms and Tsai Charwei's Fish project.
First of all, I have to say that I liked the exhibition in Műcsarnok a bit better than in Ludwig. I felt it was more easily digestable and closer to me. I wouldn't say that the exhibition in Ludwig was bad, the opposit, it was really good. There were several installations and paintings that I really really liked, however as a whole the Műcsarnok was better for me.

So, as I have said there were two pieces that really made me think, the Proposals and the Fish Project. Both of these installations deal with national identity and the problems it is surrounded by. I think that's not really surprising, as a Hungarian who was born not long before the régime change and who grew up and developed a national identity in the 90s I have to face the problems about national identity in Hungary almost every day. During the transition the countries in the Eastern Bloc had the chance to reify themselves and establish a new national identity that is free from all kinds of clichés pushed forward by nationalist or socialist propaganda. I don't know how other countries managed in that aspect, but in my humble opinion Hungary failed miserably. We cannot face the shady eras of our history and the political parties abuse this fact by tying their political identities to certain eras that they portray as a golden age, even though the golden age has never happened.
It seems to me that Taiwanese people face problems with their national identity too. Taiwan's relationship with China and the western world makes it a bridge between capitalism and communism, democracy and dictatorship, western values and eastern values. China does not recognise Taiwan as a separate country and still pursues the one China policy that wants to annex Taiwan to China. Most people on taiwan reject that idea, albeit they are Chinese themselves and they speak the same language. Therefore Taiwanese people are torn between two worlds and several identities: western - eastern, Chinese - Taiwanese etc. The two pieces that I'm talking about try to reflect on these issues. I loved the flag and coat of arms proposals, people usually don't really think about their national flags, it's been chosen for them and it stays the same for centuries in most cases, flags and coat of arms usually only change during revolutions or régime changes. However, we have to see that a national flag represents an identity frozen in time, for example the Hungarian red, white and green flag came about in the 16th century and it stayed ever since. I'm not arguing that this is a problem, but I love the idea that we can come up with different flag ideas that reflect on certain periods in our history, or certain important historical events. It reminded me of the dire need of my country to face its history and reify its national identity in a way that is not selfdistructive or tears apart the country.

The fish project talked to me on a similar level. In the video the artist took a fish painted 'one China policy' on its side and then she released it back to the sea to swim away. This reminded me of the never-ending debate about Great-Hungary and the peace treaty in Trianon. I think, just like Fish Project represents beautifully how
Chinese people should let the one China policy go, slowly and organically; Hungarian people should let the idea of revision go slowly and organically. Since I found these similarities striking between Hungary and Taiwan these two pieces talked to me very strongly about the issues of identity and historically rooted grudges.
And this is really why I liked the whole exhibition a lot. Many other videos and installations dealt with identity problems which I felt close to the problems that we have in Hungary. Altogether the exhibition was a very nice experience and I am genuinly glad that I didn't miss the Proposals and the Fish Project.

Photography in India and Joris Ivens

We watched several movies during this lecture. The first one was Photo Wallahs from 1991 shot by David MacDougall and his wife Judith. This one hour colour film discovers photography in a special part of India, Mussoorie, where photography thrived since the 19th century, and where princes and lords came to have their pictures taken. However, the shine of the place have faded and now dozens of photographers struggle to stay alive by taking pictures of Indian tourists.
Even though there's this aspect of the film, the movie's main focus is not the struggle of the photographers but the meaning and the use of photography in India in the end of the 1980s. The most interesting thing for me in the film was the fact that how old-fashioned photography lives side by side with modern colour photography. Even though the time has passed and the modern techniques were completely available for anyone many photographers stick to their old machines, and when I say old I mean stone age really, to take portraits of people or family pictures in a very static and old-fashioned way. On the other hand the new techniques creep in and photographers, struggling to keep afloat, take pictures of tourists in costumes with more modern colour cameras.

The whole film was revolving around these clashes between old and new techniques and the opinions of people from very varied social backgrounds; from the poor to the rich British colonial lady who had been left behind by the collapsing great British Empire.
The attitude of the photographers was very interesing to photography. It felt like they didn't really care for reality when it was about making pictures of people. They either took very old school staged, rigid and artificial pictures of people, or they dressed them up in costumes and made them make funny movements and faces. One of them argued that these pictures with costumes bring out the inner feelings and attributes so they sort of capture reality. However, I found this approach a bit surprising. Albeit, the common streak that all these photograohers had was the passion the capture beauty and hand it to the people whom they photographed. It felt that they cared much more about capturing something pretty than capturing something real. Therefore most of the pctures seemed a bit unnatural and enhanced, especially the ones that were painted over.
The other thing that the photographers seemed to agree about was that photography used to be an art form but not anymore. Most of them had this nostalgia for the old times when there were only black and white pictures taken by old beautiful cameras. Nowadays however photography is not special anymore, anyone can do it and develop it almost in minutes. Hence, most of the older photographers were kind of mooning over the death of real photography that was an art form. This approach is very interesting because it assumes that modern photography is meaningless almost, however I cannot subscribe to this point of view. It is definitely true that pictures taken by tourists on their fully automatic digital cameras are far from being art, but just because a photo is colour and was developed rapidly doesn't make it less art than an old-fashioned B + W picture.

The second video that we watched was a short film by Joris Ivens, The Bridge, from 1928.
This was a very interesting film for me because I didn't anticipate enjoying a movie that does nothing else but shows a bridge for 13 minutes. Obviously this is an exaggeration, the film was abou much more than a bridge and as it turned out I enjoyed it quite a bit. It was solely focusing on the workings of the bridge and the train that travelled through it furthermore the ship that went underneath it. So, besides the workings of the machines the other main focus of the film was movement, in that manner it was really similar to Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera. To be honest I cannot say much about this film because it was quite hard to grasp and digest. I understood the structure of the movie as it zoomed in on the bridge and then is showed how it worked, but I can't really come up with a 'hidden' meaning behind this, even though the effort of Ivens to capture the soul of the machine could be clearly felt during the whole thing.

The last piece was a fairly annoying Amercian propaganda film by Ivens, called the Power of the Land. It was very socialistic and propagandistic. The life of the farmer family without electricity and the hardships could have come through much better with a different approach, especially without the very very annoying narrator.
It worked with social cliches, the farmer works to serve and feed the nation not to feed his own family, the good state comes to give back etc. It was very 'in your face' and boldly aggressive.

2011. február 6., vasárnap

Week #3

On this week we mainly focused on photography in ethnography, and how different approaches to this medium can deliver different messages about the same subject. Edwards' article about photography in anthropological research was very interesting. She basically argues for an expressive approach to this whole problematic. According to her using photography simply to record data and trying to be absolutely objective is impossible and flat out counter-productive. She argues for a symbolic and expressive approach to the use of photos in ethnographic research because, she states, this way the reader can get a fuller view of the people in the research.
I'm not sure about this approach to be honest, a good and expressive collection of photos can enhance any anthropological study but if an ethnographer concentrates too much on expressiveness, it can distort the picture and ruin the authenticity of the research. However, I find authenticity a tricky notion that is very hard to define and therefore to be reached. If a tribe perform a dance during the day so the anthropologist can film it even though otherwise they would always dance it during the night, does that question its authenticity? Or if natives perform to tourists for money, is that authentic? These are very interesting questions that are hard to answer. In my opinion authenticity is very fluid and in some ways over-rated, it is much more important to understand and preserve the gist of a culture than to sacrifice everything on the altar of authenticity.
In the second part of the lecture we took a look at Leni Riefenstahl's photos of the Nuba and a BBC documentary about the same tribe.

Riefenstahl: The Last of the Nuba

BBC: Worlds Apart: The South East Nuba
This documentary was made because Riefenstahl's book stirred a huge debate in the anthropology world. People like Susan Sonntag felt that Leni gave a very one sided and distorted picture about the Nuba that was influenced by her Nazi roots. Riefenstahl is a very contradictory character in the 20th century, she was the

main propagandist for the Nazis and made several films, like The Triumph of the Will, to help Hitler to build the Third Reich. However, her documentaries and her photos are stunning and gripping so nowadays her work is creeping back into the mainstream. For me, however, her role in Nazi Germany is not necessarily the biggest problem, albeit it is definitely a fact that cannot be ignored. Her work with the Nuba and her pictures are absolutely stunning, BUT as Sonntag argues she fetishises and idolises the body and the beauty of the body just like the Nazis did. In her book nobody is old, nobody is sick and everything is subsumed to male strength and wrestling in the Nuba society. On the other hand if we take a look at the BBC documentary we can see that the case is a bit more layered and complex. The environment that the Nuba live in is not as beautiful as Leni's book suggests, it is a dry, brutal and harsh place to live and to try to survive. Also, the people are not as magnificently built and god-like as she tried to depict them. These are well-built but normal looking people struggling for survival in a desolate place. So, in my opinion, Sonntag is right in her article 'Fascinating Fascism' for the most part. Riefenstahl's work about the Nuba is tainted with a Nazi point of view to a certain extent, even though the beuty of the pictures is undeniable.