Sunday, May 2, 2010

“As Long As There’s Breath,” Stephanie Spray (2009)

Nepal, like every other South East Asian nation, is a land in which its people are governed by a centuries old caste system.  People are born into a way of life that was decided for them by rules imposed on their ancestors and are doomed into this existence until death.  In Stephanie Spray’s film “As Long As There’s Breath,” we discover a family of “untouchables,” the lowest caste in the system, and how a son who successfully manages to escape his fate is driving his family apart. 

Spray visited our final class this week to unofficially debut her latest film (albeit to an audience of 7) in a series of works on the migrant working class of Nepal.   Spray is a delightful (I use that word often in my blogs, huh?) young PhD candidate from the same Harvard program that has fostered such visual ethnographic talents as my professor and J.P. Sniadecki (whose work I reviewed here).   Her previous work in the region over the past 10 years allowed her to build a rapport with a cultural sect that is invisible to media attention.  Spray also worked with the Gayek family in two of her previous films,  “Kale and Kale” (2007) and “Monsoon Reflections” (2008).  Her personal connection with the family granted her access into their home, privileging her to conversations and moments normally held only in private.

The Gayek family lives in a small home on the outskirts of town.  The film opens up with a young boy searching through his belongings, which is nothing more than a bed covered by tattered mosquito netting.  Nearly 5 minutes pass before dialogue is introduced and the audience never discovers what he is looking for, but Spray insists that the sound of breath and ruffling sheets in this dimly lit room is the best introduction to her subjects. In the next scene, we’re introduced to the rest of the family and learn that the young boy in the opening sequence is one of the sons, but not the one we’re looking for.  Their eldest ran off to join the Maoists, tearing the tight nuclear family apart and leaving them constantly worrying about his wellbeing.  We spend the remainder of the film hoping he comes back, for, as one character claims, “as long as there’s breath, there’s hope.”

Spray’s conscious framing also delineates a sense of longing.  Her subjects almost seem to be posing for her, often shooting her subjects in casual settings as their gaze lingers off screen.   The film is devoid of fancy editing and mashes together 23 long shots collected over several months.  Much of what we watch are the everyday travails that plague the Nepali family: work, food and family wellbeing.  The women take whatever day labor work in the fields they can get while the men stay at home.  We watch them as they prepare for work, fixing their hair while they talk about the benefits of having hairless armpits.  In several scenes we overhear the women discussing the laziness of the men – including one in which the women, silhouetted against the lush green forest abutting their home, discuss the benefits of pleasuring themselves with electric dildos.  

Friday, April 30, 2010

"Fake Fruit Factory," Chick Strand (1986)

What happens when you take a dozen young Mexican girls, a gringo boss and his cute cousin from Ohio, and put them all together working in a fake fruit factory?  Chick Strand’s 1986 short film “Fake Fruit Factory” does just that.  Strand’s unique brand of visually capturing her subjects leaves the audience with nothing more than a string of conversations set to images of fake fruit. 

Along with Lockhart’s film, Strand’s is one that ascribes to a more avant-garde approach to ethnographic story telling.  Her choice of framing and audio bites made it one of the most fun films we watched in class.  We rarely see more than one body part at a time, which gives her full freedom to sync it with whatever she chooses.  Strand capitalizes on the eroticisms of the fake fruit to rationalize her use of the raunchy conversations between the female workers. 

Shot over a year at a factory in Mexico, the film focuses on the women who work to make paper-mache fruit for national and international sale.  The girls often talk about their gringo owner and his Mexican wife, though there is more of an impression that she is running the show.  The end of the film reveals that the owner ran off with a woman and left the highly profitable business to his wife.  We watch the fruit from inception to end as the ladies shape them from paper, paint them, glaze them and place “Hecho en Mexico” stickers on them. 

The quality of the film made me a bit unsure if the footage was sped up or if the women were simply very fast workers (save for the scene where they drive to the picnic, which actually was in high speed).  After a while the weariness of watching extreme close-ups wears off and the viewer is left with an intimate relationship with the female workers.  During the picnic scene, Strand’s positionality comes into question as her tight shots border on perversion.  While the young girls are swimming in bikinis and lounging in shorts, the camera still focuses on one body part at a time – but now it’s to observe the skin and curves of their child-like bodies.  I’m not sure if Strand was trying to make a comment on the use of underage workers or on how the owner of the factory may be viewing the virility of these sexually charged girls.

Aside from that, we don’t really gain much insight into the machinations of the factory or the lives of the women.  But it’s the conversations that they have while making the fruit that are most ethnographic.  Since we can only see extreme close-ups of hands, eyes or fruit, we’re left to assume if the boss was listening in on the x-rated discussions the ladies were engaging in, of which he and his man-parts often came up as a conversation piece.  The girls address him in English when dealing with him and his conversations with the filmmaker are in English, but one can only wonder if he knows the filth that is coming from the mouth of these young girls.

Click here to stream Strand’s film in its entirety online on Vimeo:

Sunday, April 25, 2010

“Lunch Break,” Sharon Lockhart (2008)

This week our class had the unique opportunity to take a field trip for our film screening.  Our teacher chose Sharon Lockhart’s “Lunch Break” at the RedCat, the lovely little Cal Arts theatre abutting the Walt Disney Concert Hall in the heart of Downtown L.A.  Lockhart, a professor of Fine Arts at USC, spent over a year conceiving and shooting the film with a crew of several dozen researchers and audio and visual technicians.  When the original storyboard for the film fell through, she restructured the film into one take of a tracking shot through a corridor at the Bath Iron Works shipyard in Maine.

Initially I was under the impression that the film, shown with its companion piece “Exit,” was to total 80 minutes.  Not so much: "Exit" would be an additional 40 minute film.  An hour and 20 minutes later, my neighbor let out an elated sigh as “Lunch Break” came to an abrupt end and the audience was given a 10-minute Q&A before the next film began.  Asking an audience to sit through 80 minutes of a frame-by-frame detail of New England miners eating lunch was extremely brave of Lockhart; asking them to sit through another film half that length about the men and women of Bath Iron Works going home from work was just cruel.   If not for the fact that I was disillusioned about the duration of the piece I may have fallen asleep like my neighbor to the right, abandoned my seat like the person in front of me, or doodled on my arm like my neighbor to my left. 

Fortunately for Lockhart, I kept myself attentive in hope of a climax while enjoying the beautiful visual detail. The film was really one extremely long photograph; each frame was slowed down to such an extreme frame-per-second rate that I began thinking of what each moment would look like if time were frozen (incidentally, Lockhart is an internationally renown photographer and professor of photography).   Her camera remained carefully positioned and static as it trudged down the hall.   The colors were deep and rich for a line of work that feeds off the mundane and her attention to detail had me reading the stickers on every cabinet and counting every screw and nail on the walls.  The audio was perfectly orchestrated to give the illusion that what the viewer is seeing is in real-time with layers of machines, conversation and radio tones. 

I wouldn’t call this film ethnographic so much as experimental.  I didn’t learn anything about the workers, but I could easily say that if I walked into this hallway right now I would be able to know where every door, bench and light switch was located.  Lockhart’s filmic style is to engage the viewer in a scenario in which one doesn’t gain knowledge of anything so much as simply absorb people, things and moments.  

Making the film 80 minutes long begs the question if she’s making art “for arts sake” and further detracts from allowing it to be viewed as academic discourse.  The viewer fails to gain any insight into the life of a blue-collar factory worker and is left wondering if the last 80 minutes of their life was well spent.  I know I would have been happier if this was made into a gallery showing of a dozen photographs.  I would also have been happier because I would have been 50 minutes richer.  

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

“Demolition (Chaiqian),” J.P. Sniadecki, 2008

“There’s an old saying in China,” a teenager explains, “that says ‘if the old does not go, the new cannot come.’” J.P. Sniadecki’s film “Demolition” is a challenging survey on China’s fastest growing industry that blends images and sounds to document a salvage crew working for three weeks on a construction site in Downtown Chengdu.  Currently residing in China and working towards his PhD at Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, Sniadecki merged his previous studies in East Asian culture with his love for capturing public space to make “Demolition” by providing the audience with his edited version of the images and sounds of the construction site.

The capital city in the vastly rural province of Sichuan, Chengdu represents the striking changes within one of the world’s most economically prosperous countries.  The temporary crew is made up of lower class men and their families who have traveled from the countryside for work in the city.  As they pry steel rebar from decades-old concrete, teens from the surrounding urban areas test out their skills at a neighboring BMX park.  Though we only hear Sniadecki, who is about as blonde and blue-eyed as they get, speak with his subjects in Chinese throughout the film, the boys talk to the filmmaker in both English and Chinese, whereas the workers only speak to him in two dialects of Chinese.  These young boys are also well dressed and have the freedom to hang out at all times of the day.  This culture clash further pits the new against the old and the rich against the poor.

Sniadecki, during a visit to USC’s humble little Anth 575 class, spoke about the importance of layered soundtracks when watching an ethnographic film.  He reminisced about the days of film recording when directors didn’t have the ability to rely on the built-in omni-directional microphones that come standard with cameras today and instead would record independent audio from different moments and places at their fieldsite.  His sense of observation allows him to perfectly frame his shots of the basic movements of the laborers while still capturing the obnoxious city soundtrack.

To paint a picture of the Chinese attitude towards progress, he pairs the sounds machines and a bustling city center with footage of the workers and a bulldozer salvaging tangled metal, which is highly ethnographic in itself, but if only for 15 minutes.  As the film begins, one can’t help but wonder while watching the film if we are missing a certain level of understanding between Sniadecki and his subjects.  The film picks up once it enters its second act by introducing conversations with the construction workers.  He engages with them during meals and other break times to offer a glimpse of their impoverished lives: shed-like living quarters, tattered clothing and inadequate diets.  Even during these insightful moments as the men talk about technology, smoking and X-rated films, we still hear the sounds of the people, cars and machines that litter the bustling city.

 You can check out Sniadecki and other Chinese ethnographers this weekend at USC’s US-China Institute and Center for Visual Anthropology’s symposium on U.S. - China Dialogues. Click here for more information about the event.  

Sunday, March 28, 2010

“Deep Inside Clint Star,” Clint Alberta, 2000

The title of the film by Clint Alberta speaks two-fold; not only is Alberta making his own pornographic film, but he’s also granting the audience permission into internal conversations and conflicts within himself and his subjects.  Aside from being of the Canadian persuasion, they call have several things in common: they are Native American, sexuality issues and identity issues.

Clint Alberta, born as Clint David Morrill and also credited in his films under the surname Torangeau, was known as a filmmaker for his quirky-nouveau approach to making documentaries.   For example, Alberta had his cameramen use several cameras of varying quality because he believed that the grittiness of it could help his fellow Natives feel as though it was made by one of their own.  He also made painstaking efforts ensure that any technical problems, such as camera focusing issues, visible booms and microphones, and even several verbal altercations with crewmembers over how he wanted to be portrayed in a shot, were captured in the film.   Alberta may have been using his massive ego to try to emphasize his thesis of the crisis of identity among modern Natives, but it more often played off as making him look like an insecure, amateur director.   His unique choices were obviously successful; the film, financed by the National Film Board of Canada, was shown in 2000 at both the Vancouver and Sundance Film Festivals.

Alberta’s film, which is just as ethnographic and introspective as it is kooky and innovating, aims to drive home the struggles of being “native” in Canada by presenting the film as a cheaply made porno starring his alter-ego Clint Star.  Alberta allows this imaginary film to grant him artistic license to add sexually evocative music, cheesy intertitles and haphazard video edits.  He also uses this “deep inside” theme as a synthesis for the honest conversations he engages in with his subjects.  In this fantasy context, Alberta introduces nearly all his characters in sexually suggestive situations: sleazy hotel rooms, at a café, and lying on a picnic blanket in a park.  His efforts at making a seriously film about serious issues are downplayed in this forum until he starts talking to his subjects outdoors.   His presence in his interviews, with subjects and himself, are comical and amateurish – especially the one involving Tawny Maine where they are sitting on a park bench talking about her personal history.  Instead of engaging with her in a sincere conversation about her past as a native adopted into a white family, Alberta stares off into the distance, his face and body stone cold as though posing for a long exposure.  Unfortunately his vanity distracts from the overall tone of the piece, which continues on from this point wavering between deeply intellectual and borderline childish.

Despite its flaws, “Deep Inside Clint Star” manages to create an open dialogue about the troubles Canadian natives have with adjusting to modern society.  Alberta’s subjects talk liberally about suicide, sexual abuse, self-loathing, child molestation, sexual identity, death, physical abuse, racism and drug and alcohol problems that plagued their lives and those that surround them.  With his subjects facing the same set of problems, Alberta asks the audience to take this knowledge and try to determine why, after “500 years of oppression,” natives are still the victims of imperialist standards.  


(And on a lighter note, I was frequently distracted throughout the film by the all subjects’ teeth.  No offense to Clint (R.I.P.), Becky, Tawny, his mom and the boys, but this is Canada – the premiere standard of socialized medicine that has been frequently used as positive PR for the free-medicine-for-all movement in the U.S. for the past two decades. Just sayin’.)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

“August: A Moment Before the Eruption,” Avi Mograbi, 2002

Avi Mograbi is an interesting character.  Known as a filmmaker for his innovative techniques, “August: A Moment Before the Eruption” is truly a unique film about Israeli people and their reaction to conflict.  Shot over the course of a month, Mograbi’s pseudodocumentary shifts between self-indulgent YouTube-style commentary, auditions for a failed film project, images of men, women and children on the street, and news clips.  His end product provides a global conversation on the lack of cooperation between divided parties and how the people in this region thrive on conflict.

The Middle East is a troubled place.  The conflict between Israel and Palestine seems never ending and becomes more hostile and deadly as each year passes. Media coverage relishes on violent marches and daily protests.  In August, above any other month, terrible things happen at every turn.  Mograbi, just like his camera, puts on an act as an independent enemy: a menace and instigator of trouble on the streets of Tel Aviv.  

The filmmaker expresses his discontent with the content of his own documentary through the musings of his wife, whom he pretends to be by wearing a towel on his head.  “Terrible things happen at every turn,” she says, “but you can’t seem to film them.”  A great deal of the film becomes Mograbi filming normal people doing normal things.  While she may have been correct, what he pastes together from his interactions with Israelis is just as effective, if not more, as footage of actual violence.

The word “August,” as the film progresses, begins to take on new meanings.  August, as Mograbi says early on, is “cruel,” “unnecessary” and “leads to nowhere.”  The month of August becomes symbolic with the irrepressible discontent and misappropriated hate that fills the people of Israel.  At first, people are only curious is Mograbi is a journalist.  They ask him why he finds it necessary to stand on a street corner and shoot images of people talking and engaging in average daily functions.  They tell him he can’t film and start aggravating Mograbi, whose counter attacks only further prove that tension is inescapable.

Mograbi uses his fictionalized tiff between his business partner and wife as another example of the elevated tensions in August.  The two characters bicker over Mograbi’s documentary – she thinks it’s a foolish decision because she finds the month to be delightful and can’t understand why he is so highly critical of his own people.  His business partner Ronny, on the other hand, doesn’t understand why Mograbi is working on the doc instead of the film about the Hebron massacre of 1994 that they’re putting together. Through her confrontation with his business partner, his wife begins to understand why Mograbi can’t find anything good to say about August.

Mograbi’s off-beat sense of humor goes to extreme of saying that the citizens of Israel enjoy sexual gratification from their heightened state of anger and hate.  His split-screen madness escalates on a parallel timeline with his man-on-the-street interviews, climaxing as Mograbi begins to fight with people and his wife and Ronny’s shouting match turns sexual. The title of the film takes on a more apparent meaning as his wife is literally penetrated with anger and as she and Ronny exclaim moans of joy and frustration, the film abruptly ends, leaving the audience in as much of an aggravated state as the subjects of his film.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

“The Good Woman of Bangkok,” Dennis O’Rourke, 1992

Before writing this article, I did a search on the internet for background information on Dennis O’Rourke, the maker of the film we watched in class this week, “The Good Woman of Bangkok,” and stumbled upon this quote by Michael Wilmington of the Los Angeles Times: “The film itself is an act of love: its ardor, evasions, hypocrisies, idealism, its unhealable wounds... nakedly open, non-exploitive and truly harrowing... a great film.” 

Wilmington’s critique as a commercial film is completely understandable.  On the surface, the film appears to be an open window into the Thai prostitution circuit.  O’Rourke brings his camera into the go-go dance clubs and shows us the faces of unhappy women forced to dance topless and even perform lewd acts on stage.  Paired with Opera music, we find these images of false love to be tragic and disgusting.  In a separate article, Wilmington goes on to assert that “those who denounce this movie for its displays of nudity or conversations about sex will have foolishly missed the point.”

But as far as approaching the film from an academic standpoint, Wilmington couldn’t be more wrong.  O’Rourke throws objectivity out the window, creating a mildly scientific film that is a heavily dramatized, idealistic disapproval of the Asian sex industry as a whole.  Aoi’s statements on the complicated life of a sex worker are as contrived as they were depressing.  Her constant cries of “I hate men” and “I hate sex” were only amplified by the conversations with the despicable and disillusioned white western clients, which O’Rourke was able to procure because he could so easily identify with them (not so much despicable, but just as disillusioned).

O’Rourke, at the time just reeling from a nasty divorce, decides to travel to Thailand, like many men, to seek the comfort of a Thai prostitute.  What makes the women of Bangkok so desirable is the blasé approach the city has to the sex trade and the eagerness at which they aim to please foreigners.  O’Rourke meets Aoi, a 25-year-old prostitute and divorced mother of two who has come from a neighboring rural town to make money to support her family.  He finds disappointment, heartache and frustration in her tale and chooses to keep her on as a paid companion for the duration of his filmmaking.  In return for access to her life story, and the ability to film her daily functions such as riding taxis to meet clients and who knows what else, he promises her a rice farm so that she can make a new life for herself.  Unfortunately, O’Rourke makes a mistake that no Anthropologist should ever commit – he failed to understand that most Thai people believe that one’s job, one’s family situation and/or one’s social position is final and cannot be changed; and also that a divorced woman – or worse, a prostitute – is tainted and can never live a normal life.  So while his gesture seems genuine, it didn’t surprise me when he revealed at the end of the film (spoiler alert!) that Aoi did not accept his gift and continued to work as a prostitute.  

At this point, he makes another grave mistake for a scientific, objective observer: he passes judgment on a woman who, with this understanding of Thai culture, has fully accepted her terrible fate.  O’Rourke doesn’t just offer to the audience that she refused to live on the farm and instead chooses return to her life as a sex worker – he says that she works at a “sleazy” dance club in the city.  His micro-investment fails and his efforts to hammer home the demoralization of Thai society instead makes O’Rourke look like a scorned lover who finds his selfish efforts at rehabilitating a broken woman unsuccessful.  Though he warned us at the beginning of the film of his involvement with Aoi, O’Rourke’s subjectivity became more suspect with this statement.