The Figuration of Gender in Ousmane Sembene’s Ceddo

21 Feb

This semester, as part of my research into the state of Ethiopia’s film industry, I am auditing a seminar on African Cinema, and the class naturally has begun with films by one of the most famous African film-makers, Ousmane Sembene. After watching his films Borom Sarret, La Noire de…, Mandabi, and Xala, we have now watched his 1977 film Ceddo, a film set in the seventeenth century about the conflict between the local traditions of a west African town and the encroaching religions of Islam and Christianity. The film stages the tragic disintegration of a community and presents a dark view of religion (whether the traditional indigenous religion, Islam, or Catholic) as mere pretext for power politics and greed. The movie reminds me of the famous 1961 novel Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, but Sembene’s film is far darker than Achebe’s novel and more directly satirical in its mockery of religious leaders. In Sembene’s film, we have the short-of-stature, Napoleonic, power-hungry imam  and the curiously mute European slave trader whom the common people hilariously call “the white man who sells alcohol” and who operates in concert with the Catholic missionary. Perhaps because of this dim view of religious leaders, and because things do actually fall apart as violence among factions escalates, and because the movie concludes  with the killing of the king, the priest, and the imam, the movie was temporarily banned by the Senegalese government in 1977. You can watch the movie subtitled in its entirety on YouTube here:

There are many things to say about this movie. For example, the reversal of the colonial gaze back upon the colonizer, as Manthia Diawara discusses in his book African Film (2010), when he suggests that Sembene’s “naturalistic and documentary approach to creating fiction out of reality… is a kind of reverse anthropology in which the gaze and the voice belong to the Africans” (page 95). Alongside that, we might note the emphasis on the traditional art of political oratory and debate and the film’s thematic resemblance to Walter Rodney’s book about the “underdevelopment of Africa” due to the power politics of colonialism,  published just a few years before Sembene made his film. We might also talk about the movie in terms of Frantz Fanon’s question of whether anti-colonial violence is justified in the name of national unity and the future of the “new man” who must emerge from that struggle. However, because the entire plot revolves around the character of the Princess Dior Yacine, who we might imagine to be a “new woman” representing the Fanonian dialectic, I want to focus on the question of the figuration of woman in Sembene’s movies.

In this film, the princess has been kidnapped by the “ceddo” (common people)  in protest against the rising influence that the imam has with their king and the new oppressive decrees that disrupt their traditional lives. The catalyst that precipitates this event is when the imam insists that the inheritance of the king must be patrilineal according to Islamic law rather than matrilineal according to local custom, thus prompting the nephew to organize a rebellion. When the princess is first captured, she proudly asserts her Muslim identity and the alliance between her father (King Demba War) with the imam. The rest of the story is about the attempt to rescue the feisty princess from her captors by the various patrilineal heirs to the throne, who are killed in their attempt one by one, and which results in an escalation of violence and the need for guns, which the Catholic Europeans are more than happy to provide in exchange for slaves until the priest is killed when the Catholic compound is raided. Meanwhile, after all of the king’s sons have been killed in their attempts to gallantly rescue the princess, the king mysteriously dies (assassinated by the imam), and into the power vacuum the imam steps in and begins to force a mass conversion to Islam. The princess is finally rescued just as the imam is in the midst of shaving the heads of each and every ceddo male and giving him a new Muslim name, but in a dramatic plot twist, she takes up a rifle and shoots the iman with the apparent support of the community.

This plot twist is foreshadowed during the princess’s captivity as she gradually sheds her Muslim identity by shedding her clothes as she waits proudly and gorgeously for her chance at escape or rescue. According to an article in Jump Cut by Gorham Kindem and Martha Steele about the “Women in Sembene’s Films,” Sembene’s films show a connection between the forces of colonial oppression and gender oppression and suggest that women had a more “exalted position place” in traditional society than they did in the Islamic and Christian-influenced colonial society. The describe a typology of gender roles in Sembene’s films that includes the allegorical figure of the mother, the symbol of fertility, the trophy (or object of pursuit and patriarchal power), and the militant warrior leading her people against oppression. They argue that the pleasure of the film Ceddo is in the collective identification with Princess Dior and the allegory of Princess Dior’s transformation into a symbol of unity for the people, which she must accomplish by shedding the symbols of privilege, class, and religious distinction (her clothes) and taking up arms.

I find the argument by Kindem and Steele compelling, but I would suggest that it overemphasizes the return to the traditional culture of a matrilineal society through the invocation of an indigenous typology. In Sembene’s film, the traditionalists are just as guilty as the Muslims and Christians for using their religion as a means to political power. Although the article posits a complex “third-world” synthesis of Marxist neo-realist film style with African traditions and argues that Sembene’s female characters function in the narrative as a link between Africa’s past and future, it is unclear whether we are to celebrate Sembene’s progressive forward-looking feminism or the traditionalism that the cultural allegory invokes.

Rather, in my view, the figuration of woman in this way is an uneasy symbolic displacement of the tensions of postcolonial Africa and the debates about the film industry narrated in chapter four of Manthia Diawara’s book African Cinema (1992). There Diawara describes a tension between the nationalist, anti-colonialist goals of the Federation Panafricaine des Cineaste (FEPACI) in the 1970s and the freedom of film-makers to make aesthetically interesting, culturally complex, and political critical films that would not be mere propaganda subordinate to national interests. One discerns a classic ideological contradiction in the goal of developing “national” cinema in Africa at a moment of profound social transformation and the conflict between Afrocentric assertions about the value of traditional culture, the desire to modernize, and the leadership’s appeal to Muslim and Christian identities to give moral legitimacy to their positions of power. In this context, it seems to me that the figuration of “woman” in Ousmane Sembene’s films, and the scopophilic pleasure of her disrobing, is a fantasy of political unity — a desire for political unity that is allegorized by the figure of a beautiful woman. It is she whom all the town is looking for as it struggles to define itself and overcome dissent. In contrast to the men, who are constantly debating, we rarely hear the princess speak. Her symbolic power is naturalized in the narrative, which is why she need not speak, but can communicate with her people by a mere look. Thus it is her image that the camera focuses on, and the “looking relations” between her and the ceddo created by some fancy editing in the final scene that create a sense of the town’s potential political future.

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Addendum, 18 March 2014

After some further reading recommended by the professor, I’d like to add something to this blog post. Above, I suggested that the figuration of woman is a displacement of political conflict and ideological contradictions in post-colonial Senegal and the Francophone African film industry. In some ways, my point agrees with Laura Mulvey’s essay “Xala, Ousmane Sembene 1976: The Carapace that Failed” published in the journal Third Text in 1991 when she suggests that “For Sembene, class politics determine over and above sexuality. Sexuality plays its part in the drama as the site of the symptom, the first sign of a return of the repressed” (p. 31). However, Mulvey’s more generous reading of Sembene suggests that his films intentionally put in play these psycho-sexual symptoms as a way of exposing the deeper socio-economic relations that have been repressed. Considering her larger point about Sembene’s brilliant interrogation of both traditional and capitalist fetishes (the idealized “woman” being one of those fetishized objects that constitute the status of the male ego), I find her argument persuasive. However, in my view, there is still something about the figuration of “woman” in Sembene’s films that can not be reduced to this politics. I guess I will leave the conversation there for now, since to continue would embroil me in a lot of fancy theorizing about symptom versus sinthome, dialectic versus rhizomatic, etc.

The Reception of “12 Years a Slave”

18 Feb

I meant to write this blog post several months ago when I saw the movie 12 Years a Slave, but my trip to Ethiopia in December and the stress of the new semester in January kept me so occupied that I never got around to it. Also the seriousness of the subject and the historical complexity made me feel like I had to do some research first, reading the other reviews, watching some other movies, and reading the original Narrative of Solomon Northup published in 1854 that the movie is based on. But now that it’s the middle of “African American History Month” and the Academy Awards are less than two weeks away — and it looks like Twelve Years a Slave has a good chance of winning best picture — I feel compelled to hurry it through. The movie is a spectacular achievement and deserves to win as much as any film does. Not having seen all of the other candidates, I must admit that I can’t say for sure, but in any case, that is not the argument I wish to make here. Rather, my primary concern is with the reception of the film in the media and with what that reception says about how Americans understand history — not only the history of slavery, but also the history of black culture — because I think the reception of the film in the mainstream media unwittingly betrays that history.

In quite a few of the interviews and reviews in the major venues (e.g., follow these links to the reviews in National Public Radio, The New York Times, The New Republic, Slate, and The New Yorker, and this interview with the director Steve McQueen and lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor) we hear a common refrain. The common refrain celebrates the film as a groundbreaking achievement, long overdue, because the movie industry has neglected this important subject for so long that average Americans continue to have little understanding of the truly horrific realities of slavery. The comparisons the reviews make are with nostalgic, racist films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939) made during the height of the Jim Crow era or with non-serious exploitation films such as Mandingo (1975) and the more recent Django Unchained (2012). (Even though it is surely the case that high schools don’t actually rely on such Hollywood movies when they teach the history of slavery, the point is still well taken.) What all these reviews aim to do is conjure up what Walter Benjamin once described in his seminal 1936 essay on the nature of film “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” as an “aura” of originality and authenticity by showing how superior and different 12 Years a Slave is when compared to these other movies.

In part, I agree with the basic idea of these reviews that, considering the centrality of slavery to American history, it is remarkable how few films about slavery have been made. I would also agree that this movie has some visually arresting scenes that brilliantly capture some of the legal complexity of a system when human beings are treated as property as well as the insane gender dynamics that it caused.  However, several things are missing in all this praise of the movie’s originality. The first and foremost is any mention of other serious films that have been made above slavery (all listed on Wikipedia, incidentally) — an odd omission indeed in reviews that place so much importance on this film being so original. Never mind Spielberg’s Amistad. I’m talking about the well-known TV series way back in 1977, Roots (written by Alex Haley who also co-authored the Autobiography of Malcolm X), and the well-regarded movie Sankofa (1993) directed by the acclaimed Haile Gerima. Even more strangely, they neglect to mention that Solomon Northup’s book had already been made into a movie before called Solomon Northup’s Odyssey in 1984 by one of the most celebrated African-American photographers (and also the director of Shaft), Gordon Parks. I do not blame the average American for not knowing about these films, all of them written and directed by black artists. But I do blame a reviewer for not doing his or her job (in the case of the above, all the reviews were written by white men), especially since by ignoring the history of black artistic achievement, they are also ignoring the years of cultural work and social activism that has galvanized black communities for decades. These are the earlier films that made 12 Years a Slave possible.

In addition to the loss of a sense of black cultural achievement in the art of film-making, by ignoring these other serious films about slavery, we also lose a critical perspective on 12 Years a Slave, because by celebrating 12 Years a Slave as so profoundly original, we are offered no real point of comparison. Indeed, the question nobody is asking is what makes this movie produced in the year 2013 any different from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, which was not just the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century, but also one of the most popular stage plays and eventually adapted multiple times for the silver screen. It is also a novel that has been deeply problematic for black artists and leaders in the twentieth century, most famously James Baldwin’s scathing essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel” and Angela Davis’s Women, Race, and Class (as well as hip hop such as Public Enemy’s “Louder than a Bomb“) that indict the novel for its sentimental morality and disturbing fetishization of the suffering black body. The absence of any comparison in the mainstream media’s reviews is surprising considering that the original Narrative of Solomon Northup was dedicated to Harriet Beecher Stowe and was advertised as “Another Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin” — alluding to the “Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin” that Stowe published in 1853 in order to provide documentary evidence of the claims made in the novel. Why this matters is that certain dramatic features of the movie 12 Years a Slave actually follow some of the themes and narrative conventions of mid-nineteenth century story-telling, and other features don’t. As this excellent essay in the Atlantic argues, the book in 1854 and the movie in 2013 have a different sense of reality and of how to make their audiences feel the “truth” of the story — hence, the movie takes several liberties with the original story in order to heighten the dramatic intensity of the film. However, some problematic nineteenth-century conventions remain unquestioned. For instance, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the movie traces the protagonist’s movement from a moderate master to a psychotic and abusive one who is an alcoholic. The evils of alcohol are somehow mixed in with the evils of slavery, and in the nineteenth century, many of the members of the abolitionist movement were also members of the temperance movement. The effect is to tell the history of slavery in terms of individual morality and psychotic brutality to which slaves are the victims — a narrative that simplifies history into a good-versus-evil story. What is hard to imagine in such a narrative is how such a system of slavery could have been economically so successful in America for two centuries if the slave owners were merely brutish, insane drunks.

To be sure, the brutality, terrorism, and constant threat of violence of the institution of slavery is an important story to tell, but in telling the story this way, the movie is missing two things, not just two things that are present in the original book, but also two things that are present in other works of literature and movies about slavery, notably the movie Sankofa, which I am arguing here is the movie about slavery that everyone should be talking about. These two things are (1) a conscious reflection on one’s roots and our enduring cultural connection to the past, and (2) a sense of the positive culture of resistance and survival that would give African Americans a sense of pride in their identity as a people who overcame this institution rather than an image of absolute deprivation and horror. Let’s contrast 12 Years a Slave with the more politically Pan-Africanist film Sankofa, since I think Haile Gerima’s Sankofa remains the best movie on slavery in terms of its narrative content. Sankofa‘s narrative technique is a bit more complex, since it begins with the present — a young black fashion model doing a photo shoot in Ghana near the ruins of a slave-trading fort. She experiences a deep psychic transference that puts her consciousness in the body of a slave. The narrative technique relates thematically to the title of the movie: the word Sankofa in the Akan language means that one must look back to the past in order to move forward in the future. (The image is of a bird looking backward.) This movie very directly asks the audience to think about who they are now and where they came from. In contrast, the relatively simple narrative of 12 Years a Slave shows us a past that seems to have no enduring relation to our present and creates a moral distance between the viewer and the movie that never really demands that we ask ourselves what we would do if we were in the position of the slave or in the position of the slave owner. We the audience leave the movie theater with the feeling of moral superiority  to the slave owners in the film — what we have seen is the horrors of a past that has since been corrected, and we are not them. Hence, as much as the reviews of 12 Years a Slave claim to be righting the wrongs of the past, they may actually have the opposite effect, serving an aesthetic escape from any real questioning of our own ethical position today. After all, does not slavery still exist in the world, and are not the clothes that we buy manufactured in sweatshops for multinational corporations? How do we understand our identities as citizens of the United States still today in relation to the reality of our global economy and the legacy of our political institutions that continue to support that economy?

In addition, Sankofa tells the story of the positive attributes of slave society including a slave community’s efforts to organize a revolt. Much of  Sankofa focuses quite accurately on how slaves actually lived and supported each other, the day-by-day successes of the community to maintain itself despite the many tragedies and abuses and failures. It celebrates the cultural memory through the songs they sang, the traditions of medicine they brought from Africa, the food they cultivated and prepared, and the personal and social relationships they struggled to maintain. As much of the past century of scholarly research has revealed, the slaves were not simply victims, but rather they profoundly influenced American culture and actively resisted slavery sometimes through direct revolts but more often in subtle ways. Often the slaves were able to exploit legal loopholes and the inherent contradictions in a system that valued the slave as property and not as a human being.

But this is not the story 12 Years a Slave tells. Focusing on the deprivation of slaves under a brutal, terrorist regime, it has little about the positive culture of resistance and widespread political organization by blacks against that regime. If a white audience is never really asked to identify with the slave owners in the film and never really forced to ask the question of what we would do if we were in that position, likewise, the film doesn’t give the descendents of slaves much to identify with either. Ironically, here the movie and the book differ. The book includes many in-depth scenes of slave culture and forms of solidarity that the movie leaves out. The book also focuses more intently on the economics of running a plantation including the laws of property ownership and debt that actually keep Northup from getting killed by his master since he is not simply owned but actually is actually part of a network of debt relations among the wealthy elite. In the movie this is dramatized brilliantly (as is described in many of the reviews) when Tibeats tries to kill him, but he is protected by the overseer who leaves him hanging in a noose until the master Ford cuts him down. (Unlike the book, however, the movie does little to explain the contradictory legal structures and economic relations of debt that would cause all this to happen.) Likewise, the book also shows the efficiency of the plantation economy including the use of slaves as overseers. In the movie, this troubling history of black-on-black violence is represented only as the psychotic episode of a drunk master when Epps forces Northup to abuse Patsey, but the movie cuts out the part of the book when Northup is just an ordinary overseer who regularly manages other slaves with his whip. This reality of the lives of slaves was far more morally conflicted and confusing than the movie shows. In other books and movies about slavery, such as Sankofa, this common feature in the ordinary and efficient management of a plantation is presented as a very real political problem and challenge to black solidarity — an important issue for the black communities and audiences during the twentieth-century Civil Rights and Black Power movements to be sure, though not an issue explored with much nuance and understanding in 12 Years a Slave. The challenge of black solidarity was also an important issue for black abolitionists in the nineteenth century such as Fredrick Douglass and Martin Delany, though we never see much evidence of the abolitionist movement and black social networks in the new movie 12 Years a Slave (In contrast, we do see all this in the 1984 version directed by Gordon Parks.) Noticeably, although the original book indicates awareness of the importance of the abolitionist movement and organized resistance to slavery, as well as the challenges of black solidarity within a brutal, contradictory system, the movie emphasizes individual suffering and Northup’s exceptional personality.

What is my point here? I do not mean to detract from the importance of this new movie, which I expect to win the Academy Award for best picture. It’s a brilliantly made film, and probably I will include it in my own teaching of early nineteenth-century literature when I teach Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and many other canonical authors who wrote about the issue of slavery. It may not be the original film on slavery or even the best film on slavery as the reviewers suggest, but it is certainly doing something that no big-budget film has done before (including the winning of the Golden Globe award for best picture already.) My criticism is directed less at the movie itself than at how the mainstream media has presented it to the public. Ultimately, in my view, the movie is a story of a black man who experiences the terrors of slavery and is eventually rescued by a white man (Brad Pitt), instead of the story that black film makers in the 1970s and 1980s were more interested in — the story of black communities working to rescue themselves. Indeed, what is missing from 12 Years a Slave and the mainstream media’s discussion of it is the same historical fact that is missing from Spielberg’s Lincoln (as I wrote about in this blog [see here] and discussed in a public forum [see here]) — and that is the heroic work not of individuals, but of organized communities.

Finfinne Diaries 1 January 2014 “The Last Day”

5 Jan

I am writing this blog post back home in Brooklyn about my last couple days in Oromia-Ethiopia, especially about the afternoon of the last day, when I traveled to the small town of Holeta, about 30 km west of Finfinne/Addis Ababa in the heart of Ethiopia’s industrial-scale agriculture, with a young man named Ebessa who was in the midst of starting his own philanthropy to fight HIV-AIDS and help poor children get an education. Holeta also happens to be the place where Nelson Mandela received some military training just months before his arrest by the South African government, the subject of a new documentary film currently in the midst of production entitled Mandela’s Gun. Ebessa is the older brother of Tesfa, the man who had been our driver the previous two weeks, and my purpose for meeting with him was simply to scout out possible non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with whom my students at Wagner College might do some volunteer work if they visited the country. Earlier that same day, in fact, I had met again with Aster and Lensa of the Gudina Tumsa Foundation (whose site in the arid district of Fantalle I had visited in 2010) to discuss this very same subject over lunch. However, what I thought would be a simple meeting with Ebessa turned out to be a lot more.

The day before (New Year’s Eve day by the European calendar) had been pretty much the usual for me and my wife Maya. My stomach had recovered from whatever it was I ate on Sunday that had caused it so much distress, and I had spent the morning writing a blog post about the previous few days. After a quick lunch at Kaldi’s Coffee — the Ethiopian version of Starbucks (except a whole lot better than Starbucks) named after the fabled goat-herd Kaldi who discovered the coffee plant — Maya and I visited the beautiful campus of Addis Ababa University and the ethnographic museum that is part of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, housed in a building that was once the emperor’s palace. We then had coffee with the scholar Dr. Ezekiel Gebissa, who teaches at Kettering University in Michigan and whom I have met several times in the United States at Oromo Studies Association conferences. He was in Addis to run a short winter-term seminar at the brand new Center for Human Rights at the university, and he gave us a brief tour of the center. He also invited us to come out to see the legendary Oromo pop star Ali Birra give a live show for New Year’s Eve, but Maya and I had already planned a triple date for the evening with my friends Alessandro and Roba and their girlfriends (recently arrived from France and Italy) at a fancy Egyptian restaurant, and I was still not feeling 100% enough after Sunday night’s food-poisoning to attend a late-night concert. Perhaps coincidentally, or perhaps not, all of us on this triple date are in bi-racial relationships, which got me to thinking that if you aren’t in a bi-racial and/or intercontinental relationship, you just may be out of touch with the twenty-first century, ha-ha-ha. Then again, who cares. After this last evening out, I thought that things were tapering off — that the next day I’d just have a couple of meetings, after which Maya and I would have dinner with her grandparents, and then we’d go to the airport for a midnight flight home. But the afternoon turned out to be one of the most interesting afternoons of my whole trip.

Taking notes in HoletaEbessa picked me up from outside the Kaldi’s Coffee by the Bole Madhane Alem Cathedral in an ancient Toyota Corolla he’d rented for our trip from an acquaintance. In the open compartment below the dashboard were some CDs and DVDs that belonged to the car’s owner, including bootlegs of the American TV suspense drama Nikita with sexy pictures of actress Maggie Q on the covers. Ebessa had originally planned to become an evangelical minister, attending the Mekane Yesus Seminary, but his experience as a high school student volunteering to help victims of HIV-AIDS had instilled in him a passion for philanthropy, and so he changed his program of study to management and leadership. He got a job with an NGO working in Holeta, but that program was phased out after two years (as is, unfortunately, far too often the case with such non-governmental programs.) During those two years, he had formed a relationship with the community, and so he decided to start up his own organization that would help poor children go to school. He was currently working with about 80 children (about ten from each of the eight kebeles — or “wards” — of the town) to help them with food security, school supplies, and life-skills. In addition, considering his own experience with short-lived programs, he is already planning for the possibility that his program may not last by setting up a chicken and goat farm that will be owned and operated by the families he works with even after he leaves. After we drove into town, he first first took me far off the main road to this farm, where we met a few of the men and women caretakers. When we left, the caretakers said “ciao” — the Italian word for goodbye, which is how most people say goodbye in Ethiopia. Next, Ebessa took me to visit one of the neighborhoods to visit a couple of the families and their homes. On the way from the farm to the families, we picked up an elementary school teacher named Kidist who works closely with some of the children.

Comin out of house in HoletaIn the pictures uploaded to the blog, you see me, always with my pad and pen, taking notes. On this trip, I learned a lot about Holeta and the “kebele” town organization that I didn’t know before. As is explained in the town’s promotional video that I’ve inserted below, Holeta is a big agricultural area with a government research facility and even a wildlife preserve. For ordinary people in the town, the research center is simply the place where they go to get milk. Holeta and the nearby towns also have many large flower farms owned by foreign corporations, and you will sometimes see Chinese and South Korean writing and flags next to the Oromo and Ethiopian writing and flags. On the one hand, such agribusiness is good for the community, providing thousands of jobs. The parents of the children I met worked for these companies. On the other hand, the families still seemed quite poor, living in small houses with dirt floors, mud walls, and thatch roofs, and the companies did not always follow environmental standards, so the long-term effects on the local ecology (especially the water) is a major issue. From the elementary school where Kidist works, if one looks in one direction, one can see these enormous industrial-sized hot houses, and if one looks in the other direction, one sees the construction of a brand new building for a facility that will train security guards for government embassies. It’s a curious irony that these two things would be within sight of the same school that is itself looking forward to the children’s future.

Holeta with Tibabuu and KidistFurther down the dirt road from the school, we stopped and got out of the car and walked for a bit, passing the kebele office building, which is important for a number of reasons. For those of you unfamiliar with Ethiopian history, a “kebele” is an administrative unit originally set up in the 1970s after the revolution to transform the feudal system of lord-and-tenant farmer into a system of governance by peasant associations. What I learned is how central the kebele office is for the community, as it is the office that allocated the land for the small homes that I visited and it is where families go to get water from the faucet (unless they want to get it from the local creeks, which may or may not be polluted.) If anyone wishes to do business or philanthropy in the neighborhood, or even just visit, one must go through the kebele. I visited just one of the eight kebeles in Holeta. At the first home I visited, I met a small boy named Tibabuu, who showed me the perfect score he received on his math quiz that week.

I left with many questions, and reflecting on my experience now, a few days later, I think that getting a complete picture of the situation would require months of work. One question was a question that Ebessa was himself dealing with, and that is how to create a grass-roots NGO that would be able to sustain itself. Another related question is funding, and a third question is when and how to begin identifying which individuals had HIV-AIDS since it still was a horrible stigma in the community, despite government and church efforts at public education. Lastly, I wondered what my students could usefully do there in the limited span of a week, or if the place would simply be too difficult for them. The promotional video above explains that the name “Holeta Genet” suggests a garden of Eden. It isn’t.

Finfinne Diaries 31 December 2013

31 Dec

There is an old notion about creating your own luck, and another way to put it is that “the more you do, the more you do.” In my case here in the capital city of Ethiopia, each thing that we have done soon led to more opportunities, and so I want to narrate the chain of events to highlight what I perceive to be a cause-and-effect. During the first week in Finfinne/Addis, as I described in my blog back then, my colleagues and I held a public forum about the state of the film industry in Ethiopia. One of the things that I believe this led to was some conversations with some government officials a few days later, as I described in a previous blog post, but in addition to that, another thing that it led to was an invitation to me and Alessandro from the Alitinos young film-makers association to present at one of their regular meetings.

So, on Thursday, the day after Maya and I returned from our trip to Wollega, we had a nice café with Alessandro and a few members of the Alitinos group at old Taitu Hotel (where there is a lot of good modernist art on display) in the Piazza neighborhood and then walked over to the Russian Cultural Center where we gave our presentation. The questions posed to us ranged from academic curricular issues to local question about making film in Ethiopia to the globalization of the film industry, and it was an enjoyable discussion.

Following the discussion, one of the young film-makers invited me and Maya to his “studio” (basically an office in his home) on Saturday afternoon to watch his first film, have lunch, and converse with him and the president of the Alitinos group about film technique. Maya and I thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. I have had some amazing opportunities here in Ethiopia, better than I anticipated, and I look forward to coming back again.

Meanwhile, on Friday, I arranged a brunch meeting with my friends Roba (the coordinator for activities in Ethiopia by the international environmentalist organization Slow Food) and Gammachu (a professor of forestry) so that I could introduce them to each other and begin brainstorming about a possible Sandscribe Communications documentary film on environmental issues. One question we raised was how to make an original movie about the environment. Another was how to involve ordinary people in the making the film so that it expresses their points of view and so that the stakeholders can represent themselves (which, in Ethiopia, also means getting government permission to do that.)

But I don’t want the readers of this blog to think all my time here is just about film-and-media and work. We also are tourists, and we spent Friday afternoon at the National Museum (which I’ve written about before in my other blog [here]), checking out the bones of the first human as well as some pretty amazing modern art, and we spent Saturday morning at the Red Terror Museum (which I’ve written about for the Oromo webzine Ogina [here]) where took an incredible guided tour by someone who had actually been imprisoned and tortured by the military Derg regime in the late 1970s, which was both moving and informative.

Also important on this trip is friends and family, and for fun on Saturday night, we met some friends at the Beer Garden Inn, which is the first German-style brew house to serve its own beer in Ethiopia. On Sunday, we spent the day eating far too much food with Maya’s grandparents, aunts, and uncles, and then went out with her cousin for some young-people’s time at the Yod Abyssinia Cultural Restaurant. This restaurant features live performances of traditional singing and dancing – including the traditional Ethiopian version of “twerking,” and I half-expected to see Miley Cyrus to make an appearance, hahaha. It is also one of the few restaurants that serves the traditional  home-made dhadhi (a.k..a, tej, a.k.a., honey wine or mead.) As you might guess, this place is a popular tourist spot, and half the audience were either white or Asian. The owner of the restaurant is ethnically Gurage, and the performances were quite diverse, representing the cultures of different regions of Ethiopia from western Oromia to southern Sidamo and Gurage as well as the central Shoa and northernTigray. In retrospect, I should have taken my colleagues Jennifer and Stephen to this place for dinner (as was recommended by our driver.) One funny thing is that a lot of it reminded me of the many “culture nights” put on by the Oromo Students Union at different colleges and by International Oromo Youth Association that I’ve attended in Minnesota (and that I’ve blogged about before [here]). They both blended singing and dancing with small skits. One difference is that the restaurant had musicians playing traditional instruments, not recorded or synthesized music, but the bigger difference was the location and audience – one was in Ethiopia and consisted of mostly tourists, and the other was in America and consisted almost entirely or Oromo immigrants. I began to think about this uncanny parallel between the tourist experience and the immigrant experience of traditional culture. Another surprising event was when the performers invited audience members to try to dance, and an Asian man got up on stage and impressed everyone, so later he was crowned “king” of the dance (like a homecoming king) alongside an Ethiopian woman. I noticed that he could actually speak Amharic, and I wondered how many American businessmen in Ethiopia could do that, and while wondering, I also speculated that there may be a reason behind China’s success in Africa. To be honest, I don’t know much about China (though I studied ancient Chinese philosophy and art as an undergraduate and love Chinese cinema), but there was something about the performances and skits at the Yod Abyssinia Cultural Restaurant that reminded me of Japanese skits and musical performance that I saw when I lived in Tokyo for two years. The similarities really struck me, and I see some real opening for cross-cultural connection. In some ways, the more I travel, the more I think that people are basically people, and all this talk of cultural differences and identity politics might  be missing the point. The real differences that I see are differences in wealth and power (and I see those everywhere I go), not culture. On the other hand, the cultural differences are pretty fascinating too.

As you might guess from how this blog post has no focus or theme, our trip is winding down, and I’m a bit ready for home.  After a weekend of food and fun, I got sick and spent Monday in bed. Maya took care of me, and then, at my urging, went shopping with her aunt at the Shiro Meda market. Today we plan to have dinner with a couple of friends (and we might even remember that it’s New Year’s Eve, though we might not, so far away are we from “Western” life right now), and tomorrow I plan to meet with a couple of local NGOs to see about possible volunteer opportunities for my students, and then we board our flight back to New York. This is my last blog post from Finfinne, but I hope to compose a more reflective and theoretical post once I am home in Brooklyn.

Finfinne Diaries 26 December 2013

26 Dec

My wife Maya and I just returned from a three-day trip to the Wollega district of Ethiopia, a few hundred kilometers straight west of the capital city. Now that I’m back in Addis Ababa/Finfinne and have a bit of time to spend at an internet café, this blog post will be devoted to that trip. Unfortunately, unlike last week when I blogged three times while staying at the Bole Ambassador hotel, this week I haven’t been able to blog much or even check e-mail because I don’t have access to the internet. The official college business part of my trip ended Saturday morning when we met with the Gudina Tumsa Foundation — about which I have already written at length on my other blog [here] after my last visit to Ethiopia in 2010 — and there we saw the Sandscribe Communications office. After that brief visit, Maya and I moved from the hotel to the house of a relative, and on Sunday, we spent the day at a family gathering, stuffing ourselves with doro wat, kitfo, anchote, rafu, and other stews on top of the budeena (a.k.a., injira, the traditional Ethiopian pancake-like bread), and catching up with relatives of Maya’s whom neither of us had ever met before. Luckily, during this family gathering we were able to recruit someone to join us on our trip, Juwar, born and raised in Addis but has lived in Maryland, not far from Maya’s family.

So, early Monday morning, just as the sun began to rise, the five of us set out for Wollega. Our group was me, Maya, Maya’s youngest aunt Lensa, our new friend Juwar, and our trusty driver and all-around righteous dude Tesfa. I’m afraid the trip had a mix of different purposes, a little mixing of business, pleasure, and family, so there isn’t much coherence, and it may not seem like it has much to do with film and media at first, but bear with me, and hopefully you’ll see. And when I say “see,” you’ll have to rely on my descriptions and theorizations, because I haven’t had time to process all the photos and transfer them to a USB jump-drive to bring to the internet cafe where I am now.

For those of you who don’t know Ethiopia’s geography, the drive into Wollega is extraordinarily beautiful. The elevation is between 7000 and 8000 feet (which is about 2000 to 3000 feet higher than the Appalachian mountains in America.) One goes up and down mountains and valleys, crosses over small rivers, and drives past what essentially is hundreds of kilometers of farmland. Even during the dry cold season after the crops have already been harvested (i.e., now in December), it is still lush, and when one looks down from the mountain onto the valley spread out below, it looks like a patchwork of different colors with fields of a variety of crops such as tef (the nutritious grain used to make budeena), corn, chickpeas, and pasture for cattle. We drove past groves of mango, banana, avocado, papaya, and other trees such as the tall and straight poplar tree, and small towns of small houses made of mud or clay walls and either thatch or corrugated tin roofs. Juwar remarked that it reminded him of the Shire from J.R.R. Tokien’s novels The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Our ultimate destination was the coffee farm owned by Maya’s grandfather in the town of Bodji, and upon arrival at their stately home, we compared it to Eden. The home itself almost feels like a nineteenth-century American farm with a well for water, a woodshed out back, a beautiful garden, and a patio where we all rested after our journey and had coffee and a dish called irridibu, which is freshly made budeena basted with spiced butter. Nothing tastes better than fresh, home-made bread out in the country. We also noted the ironic juxtaposition of essentially old, traditional forms of life and the new forms. Throughout the region, one sees mud huts with satellite dishes, people driving carts pulled by donkeys while talking on their cell phones, streams of children walking miles to a school where they study an academic curriculum that comes from who-knows-where, and young boys herding cattle down a major highway recently build by the Chinese government. Indeed, this road had only been completed a couples months before we arrived, which made our trip significantly easier and faster, for otherwise we would have needed an SUV to manage tedious unpaved roads. Such a mixture of old and new, local and foreign, is precisely the sort of paradox of globalization that I taught last spring in a special course that utilized various internet technologies to connect American and Ethiopian students.

Our first destination on Monday was the city of Nekemte, where after driving for many hours across gorgeous landscape, I met with the president of Wollega University, a new regional state university created just six years ago. The school is rapidly expanding as part of the federal government’s commitment to regional development and national integration. My guess is that the Chinese investment in the roads helps somewhat, but I also notice that the Ministry of Education seems to deliberately send students to campuses in other regions, which I assume is intended to contribute to national integration. Wollega University also recruits faculty from other countries, especially India, for medical sciences and information science & technology. They also have exchange programs with schools in Italy, Netherlands, and Norway, and they are in the midst of talks with the U.S. embassy about possible connections with American schools since they want American faculty to participate in their English language and literature program. At the same time, they are creating a folklore department to study local cultures and have plans for fostering local arts and media (including film.) Of course, media and folklore go together, since the documentation of folklore is essentially oral and visual, i.e., documentary film. I could not help but notice that the work of so-called “development” and “globalization” always seems to be followed by a renewed interest in preserving local culture, and I think this paradox needs to be theorized more deeply by Ethiopian scholars, government officials, artists, and film-makers. The key word that I’ve been hearing for the past week and a half is “development,” but the problem that I also see with the “development” ideology is that it is as much ideological as it is practical, sometimes blind to the very economic opportunities it is supposedly meant to foster as well as to the cultural dynamics that should be obvious, but aren’t.

After this short visit of an hour, I then visited the Mekane Yesus church compound in Nekemte, where Maya and I met with Fenan, the country coordinator for Resources for the Enrichment of African Lives (REAL) – the organization that we had briefly met in Addis last week and that our documentarian Jennifer had briefly filmed. REAL’s mission is to help teenage girls who have lost their parents so that they can go to college and become leaders. Fenan was once one of the students herself and now mentors others. That was Monday, and we had been up since 5:00 a.m., driven 325 km, and met with two organizations, so I was ready for a couple beers and some shekla (a delicious food which is basically spicy meat served in stoneware pot in which it is still being cooked by coals underneath.)

The next day (Tuesday) was to be devoted to family. We woke up very early for our long trip ahead, but soon after we woke up, the electricity went out in the whole neighborhood, and we found ourselves in pitch darkness, so Maya had to shower by the light of her cell phone. We then drove to the small city of Gimbi where we had breakfast, and then continued on to the country town of Bodji. I have already described how beautiful this terrain is and the lovely house of Maya’s family. After some visiting with relatives, we drove a couple miles to where the coffee farm is and hiked around the tef field and coffee plants. Next, we visited the Bodji Deremedji primary and secondary school that Juwar’s grandfather had built, and Juwar talked to administrators about his grandfather’s legacy. Coincidentally, Maya’s mother, uncles, and aunts had all attended that school, and so for Lensa it was a bit of a walk down memory lane. We then drove back to Gimbi and relaxed at the hotel, where unfortunately Maya caught a bug in her stomach resulting in necessary religious devotions to the porcelain god. Wednesday morning, we woke up bright and early, drove to Nekemte where we had breakfast. I had chechebsa, which is made from a fried doughy bread called keeta mixed with the spiced butter, along with scrambled eggs and honey. In some ways, Ethiopia really is the land of milk and honey. In other ways, it is a land of staggering poverty. In a society whose culture is essentially based on farming, those who have no land will struggle to survive. The question of land is central, I believe. For the five of us travelers, it was painful to see some of our own relatives unable to make ends meet at the same time that other relatives appear quite prosperous. After breakfast, we went to the Wollega Museum where I learned that the Oromo culture in Wollega values farming and land and that, traditionally, skilled professionals such as blacksmiths were somewhat isolated from the rest of the community. This cultural bias has changed since the People’s Revolution in 1974 that began to democratize the country, but I wonder if it persists in some less visible ways. I also learned that there is significant diversity in Wollega, both Christians and Muslims, and not just Oromos, but also communities that have migrated from the very environmentally different Gambella region as well as the Jebelawi community from Assosa. Now that the southern Sudan is so rife with conflict, I wonder how many people from there might migrate to Wollega in the near future.

On our return home (on what is Christmas day in Europe and America, but just an ordinary day here in Ethiopia where Christmas occurs on January 7), we again drove past miles and miles of beautiful farmland as well as miles of miles of poverty. On the roadside, either squatting or standing, but always looking for the car around the bend, people sold coal, avocados, pumpkins, lumber, sugar cane, corn, beautifully carved wood utensils, and even dirt (for the walls of homes.) Women walked carrying bundles of firewood on their backs or gallons of water – “hewers of wood and drawers of water” — the classic biblical formula for the hard labor of women and servants (a biblical formula brilliantly discussed in its eighteenth-century transatlantic context in Rediker and Linebaugh’s awesome work of history, Many-Headed Hydra.) As we got closer to Addis, we also drove past miles of industrial-scale greenhouses cultivating flowers and other things for export. We also experienced the “traffic-cop” phenomenon that I had seen in the locally produced movie just last week. Traffic cops will frequently post themselves in the road and stop vehicles in hopes of taking bribes. Since I was the only white non-Ethiopian in the car, our driver insisted that I sit in the front seat with him since the traffic-cops were more likely to let us go if they saw me there. We dubbed this the “Ferenji pass” (ferenji being the word for foreigner), so essentially my official “job” in the car was “being white.” On the 432 km journey back from Gimbi to Addis, we were stopped ten times (five in the Wollega district, five in the Shoa district, in case anyone wants to keep score), and usually we were just waved on (the ferenji pass), but twice we were searched (once in Wollega, once in Shoa), and one cop hinted that the presence of a ferenji meant the driver could afford the bribe. We never paid a cent. I decided to make a drinking game out of this, since Juwar had procured some home-made arak liquor in Nekemte, and he and I took a swig after every encounter.

As I reflected on all of these local-global paradoxes, I wondered how the economy and culture of Wollega might soon change since the road has been completed (two months ago, just in time for my trip.) For instance, would the new highway and new presence of universities bring industrialization to the region? Since I noticed that some of the children were confused about the difference between “ferenji” (the word for European) and “China” (the word for all Asians), would they start learning Chinese in Wollega? Would the khat trade (which I have written about [here]) expand now that it could be exported more quickly, as it did in other regions after highways were completed there? I wondered what my Ethiopian students would have to teach me about this in the days and years to come. What movies might they make to dramatize this complexity?

Finfinne Diaries 20 December 2013

20 Dec

This is going to be a short and quick blog post. I would write later, but this is my last night in the hotel with wi-fi, so I’m not sure when I will have a chance to blog again. As I mentioned in the first paragraph of my Finfinne Diary of December 16th, our trip had a number of goals. I outlined four, but in my haste I forgot to mention one of them — the investigation of possible topics for documentary film projects. Towards that goal, in addition to meeting with girls from the Resources for the Enrichment of African Lives project that I mentioned before, our documentarian Jennifer Dworkin returned to the studio of Paulos Regassa with some of the Sandscribe Communications students and has spent some time later with the students themselves. We will also meet with the Gudina Tumsa Foundation tomorrow, and then most of our official work will be done. Stephen Greenwald has already left, and tonight I got to finally spend some time with Maya’s grandparents and other relatives.

The previous night (Thursday) we invited the scholar Alessandro Jedlowski out to dinner with us again and also the young film-maker whom we had met at Addis Ababa University and whose film we had gone to the cinema to watch the night before (as I described in my blog post for 18 December 2013). Happily, my wife Maya, who had just arrived the night before, could join us also.

2013-12-20 Ethiopia trip pictures 003Most of the past two days (Thursday and Friday) have been various meetings with a diverse group of government officials at various locations in the city. We had intentionally left Friday wide open on our schedule just in case something came up or to do a little tourism, but it ended up being our busiest day of the week. Possibly, after our public presentation on Tuesday, some word got around about our trip, or possibly just serendipity, but in any case, Dhaba got some calls from worthy individuals. Out of respect for those officials who met with us, I will refrain from mentioning their names or posting photographs here, but let me just say that we did get to see the inside of Parliament, which was cool. We have learned a lot about the current state of film and media in Ethiopia from all these meetings, and I hope we were able to contribute something useful as well and that they will lead to great things in the future.

From here on, although I will continue to follow through with my research and the various goals of the trip here and there, I will mostly be spending time with Maya and her family, and we plan to travel west about 250 miles to the Wollega region where her family comes from. I don’t know if I will be able to blog again until I return on Wednesday.

Finfinne Diaries 18 December 2013

18 Dec

When I blogged about our trip in Oromia-Ethiopia two days ago, I had some foolish notion that I could actually write a blog post every night, but last night we were having too much fun, out on the town in Addis Ababa with colleagues and friends at a delicious Italian restaurant called Grani de Pepe, that houses the environmentally  conscious Slow Food shop organized by my friend Roba Bulga. After some delicious food, delicious company, and probably too much wine, we returned to our hotel quite late. And tonight, my wife Maya will be arriving at the airport, so once again, I will be writing as fast as I possibly can, and I apologize if it is just a list of events streaming past — we’ve been so busy these past two days that “streaming past” is precisely what it felt like.

2013 Ethiopia trip picts Dec 17 to 18 009_croppedSo, to catch up, we continued to pursue our agenda that I laid out in the first paragraph of my last post. First, Stephen Greenwald and I visited the premier national university of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa University (AAU) where we met with the chair of the Theater Department, Dr. Aboneh, the chair of the Communications and Journalism Department, Dr. Negeri, a couple of their graduate students who work on film, and of couple of journalists who graduated from that program. The journalists, not coincidentally, also took the transnational class on film and globalization that I taught last spring that connected a classroom of American students with a classroom of Ethiopian students. One of our topics was the discipline of film studies, which some faculty at AAU are interested in creating there. While we were having this discussion, Jennifer Dworkin was at Rift Valley University College where she held the second class for Sandscribe Communications on documentary film-making.

2013 Ethiopia trip picts Dec 17 to 18 014The next big event, as I promised to talk about at the conclusion of my last post, was the grand event — a three-hour panel discussion on the production and distribution of film in Ethiopia and the possibilities for its development. The panel included Sandscribe’s founder Dhaba Wayessa who explained the reason for Sandscribe’s existence — to create a climate for young people to make creative and socially responsible films — and the point of the panel — to explore this question and get feedback from an audience that included students, professors, media professionals, businessmen, and government officials all interested in this topic. Next up was Sandscribes’ managing officer who reported on the surveys he conducted about the viewing habits of film-goers in Addis. Third was the visiting scholar Alessandro Jedlowski who gave a brief overview of his extensive research comparing different African film industries. Fourth, Stephen Greenwald outlined the key ingredients of a sustainable film industry and what he had learned about Ethiopia’s strengths and weaknesses when measured against that standard. Last, I ran the discussion organized around key questions and points brought by the panelists and solicited feedback from our audience and the diverse expertise that it represented. The discussion was lively and attentive.

2013 Ethiopia trip picts Dec 17 to 18 035One unexpected bonus for me at both Addis Ababa University and the Sandscribe panel at Rift Valley was the chance to meet some of the students from last spring’s class. It is also wonderful for a teacher to discover that his teaching mattered to someone, and I was overjoyed that some of them were there and could pose with us for this group photo. I was even more moved when I discovered to learn that the conversations my class had started about the globalization of the film industry were still continuing. We capped off a great day by going out to dinner as I mentioned above.

me and Berhanu

me and Berhanu

Another fortunate consequence of the panel discussion is that it created enough buzz that it generated more opportunities for us. One person in the audience, Wosenyelleh Tilahun,  is a businessman working for nascent production and distribution company, Sebastopol Films in Addis. Wosenyelleh had also taken my class while he was simultaneously translating another film criticism textbook from English into Amharic. This morning we visited one of the studies and theaters and discussed the business with us and the goals of his company, including the new theaters it had built. After this visit, we stopped by the Mekane Yesus Seminary, which is where Sandscribe ran its first workshops back in 2011 and 2012, to visit with its President Dr. Belay and its director of the music and media program Bereket Melese. We returned to our hotel to be interviewed by Mr. Berhanu, a journalist for the English-language newspaper The Ethiopian Herald. Meanwhile, Jennifer had gone to film interviews with three girls who are part of the REAL program to provide opportunities for disadvantaged.

Next on our agenda was a conversation with Mr. Mesfin Dereje at the Oromia Radio and Television Organization Office. As many readers of this blog may already know, most of the radio and all of the television in Ethiopia is a state-run enterprise. Only recently, in 2008, has this enterprise diversified somewhat with new regional stations, such as Oromia’s, that can broadcast in the local languages. We discussed this historical change as well as the challenges of television programming in Ethiopia.

We capped off the evening by going to one of the government cinemas and watching a locally produced romantic comedy about a female traffic cop who falls in love with a taxi driver. The film was actually produced by one of the graduate students whom we had met at Addis Ababa University the day before, and happily her brother met us at the door and helped us understand some of the story (since there were no subtitles.) It was a delightful movie, and what we all agreed that we most liked about it was its attention to details of the ordinary lives of working-class people.

All of these events and conversations have given me a lot to think about, and I have learned a lot. I wish I could devote some time to reflecting on the events now or even just add some more hyperlinks, but it is well past midnight and instead I must go to the airport to pick up my wife. Fortunately, tomorrow has a less intense schedule.

Finfinne Diaries 16 December 2013

16 Dec

I am writing from the Bole Ambassador Hotel in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city, also known by its Oromo name, Finfinne. It is late at night, and tomorrow I have another busy schedule, so I hope you will excuse the hasty and sloppy style of my writing in this blog post, but I wanted to speedily tell about my trip so my friends, family, and colleagues back home could follow my experiences day-by-day. My colleagues Stephen Greenwald (director of film and media initiatives at Wagner College), Jennifer Dworkin (documentary film-maker), and I arrived in Ethiopia late Saturday night to join my good friend and collaborator, Dhaba Wayessa (Voice of America journalist and all-around renaissance man) who travelled ahead of us to prepare for our project. Our trip has several goals: (1) to continue my ongoing research about the cultural history of America’s relationship to Ethiopia, (2) to investigate the state of cinema in Ethiopia and the potential for its development, (3) to give two quick, introductory seminars for Sandscribe Communications on the business of film and documentary film-making, and (4) to look for potential partners for education abroad opportunities and international exchange with the college where I work in New York.

On Sunday, I woke up and went for a quick jog around the neighborhood and soon discovered that either I hadn’t had enough sleep after 20 or so hours of airplane travel or wasn’t used to the high altitude of Addis Ababa (almost 8,000 feet above sea level.) After breakfast, we all met to discuss the agenda for the week, go out for lunch, and do a little tourism, driving up the forested Mount Entoto above Addis and checking out the Church of St. Mary, the site that inaugurated the religious dimension of the colonization of the Oromo town by the Abyssinian empire.

documentarian Jennifer Dworkin captures Paolos Regassa's work as Stephen Greenwald and Dhaba Wayessa look on

documentarian Jennifer Dworkin captures Paolos Regassa’s work as Stephen Greenwald, Dhaba Wayessa, and Alessandro Jedlowski look on

Today, Monday, we began our work and were joined by the scholar from Italy Alessandro Jedlowski, currently doing postdoctoral study in Belgium on the production and distribution of film in Africa. We began by meeting with a local entrepreneur to discuss the state of finance and the legal framework business in Ethiopia. Though not directly related to film and the goals of our trip, the question of capital investment and the rather unique system that governs business in Ethiopia is germane to the potential for film production. After an unexpectedly entertaining and surreal — and therefore especially useful — conversation, we drove to visit the studio of a brilliant local film-maker named Paulos Regassa, director of the dramatic film Ashenge and many documentaries, to discuss the challenges and opportunities of making films in Ethiopia.

We then went for lunch and briefly met with someone from Resources for the Enrichment of African Lives (REAL), an organization that provides mentors and support for disadvantaged girls in the Oromia region of Ethiopia and in the United States to discuss the possibility of filming a few of the girls in the organization.

2013 Ethiopia trip picts Dec 15 to 16 060_crop

Stephen Greenwald, Steven Thomas, and Dhaba Wayessa with a few Rift Valley University College faculty and administrators

After lunch, we all traveled to the Bole campus of the extensive Rift Valley University College. There, Dhaba, Steve G., and Steve T. met with several faculty and administrators. We explained our goals (as I outlined them above), and they explained the history of their school, and we discussed possible points of mutual interest and future endeavors. They were a wonderful and enthusiastic group. Meanwhile, Jennifer led a workshop on documentary film with some Sandscribe Communications students. Later in the evening, we were treated to a tasty dinner at the Hilton Hotel by the president of Rift Valley, Dinku Deyasa.

At some point, I want to theorize about one of the main topics of conversation that we had to today and the many things I learned regarding the question of film and media production in Ethiopia, since theorizing is the sort of thing that I usually do in this blog, but it is now midnight, and tomorrow is another busy day, and that is precisely the question that all of us will formally give a public presentation about tomorrow afternoon. Stay tuned!

The Whence and Whither of Film Studies… or, is the cinema really dead?

19 Oct

Earlier this spring of 2013, the University of Pennsylvania’s Cinema Studies department hosted a conference on the supposed “death of cinema” (speculated by prominent New Yorker critics) and the “future of cinema studies.” The conference reflects a now common observation that companies specializing in the traditional medium of “film” (or the technology of the now defunct “celluloid“) have either gone out of business or shifted to digital forms — new forms that facilitate hybrid multi-media production.  In addition to changing modes of production, there are also changing modes of distribution (notably the internet) that have led to new formats, styles, viewing habits, etc. This worry about a crisis in the field due to a rapidly changing world is nothing new. In a 2004 issue of the Cinema Journal, E. Ann Kaplan noted how this crisis is not just due to changes in technology but also due to changes in the cultural framework of analysis — notably, a shift from “national cinema cultures” in which we analyze French film, German film, Italian film, etc., to global and transnational cultures in which we analyze cultural mixtures, communities marginalized from national cultures, multinational corporations, and transnational partnerships. Even more significantly, her discussion of the field and how it has been debated at venues such as the Modern Language Association convention reminds us of an earlier “crisis” in the field when the hegemony of television spurred the Society of Cinema Studies to change its name in 2002 to the Society of Cinema and Media Studies.

Since I don’t think the cinema “is really dead” (alluding to the sardonic Simon and Garfunkel lyric about the theater), I have summarized this recent speculation about its fast-approaching demise to raise a simple question about its future: whither film studies? And since I am a literary historian and theorist by training, naturally I begin by considering its past: whence film studies? Although Simon and Garfunkel’s song suggests that to speculate on the death of the theater is a pretentious question asked by two lovers struggling to have a real conversation, the death of the theater became a reality last month when the New York City Opera announced that it was closing. In the case of the academic field of film studies, one might question its relevance given the emergence of new technologies and forms of distribution that threaten to displace its centrality in the study of modern media and culture. Or, more sensibly, one might more simply admit that all things change and begin to work through the challenges that we face as scholars, teachers, and practitioners as we imagine its future.

Obviously the origins of film studies is complicated, and, likewise, obviously its institutionalization at various colleges and universities is varied and diverse. However, because any academic field always has to justify its existence as such, standard histories and anthologies of the field inevitably refer to two individuals writing in the 1930s. The first is revolutionary Russian film-maker Sergei Eisenstein, who observed in his books Film Form and Film Sense that film was not like other artistic mediums because it is essentially little bits of plastic, spliced together. The true artistry of film happened in the editing room when images were juxtaposed to create meaning — something he called montage. The second is the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, whose foundational essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” argues that new technologies transform our understanding of authorship and authenticity. Benjamin and his Frankfurt School colleague  Theodore Adorno debated whether the new technologies empowered the working classes to make art or, alternatively, increasingly subjected them to the brainwashing effects of mass media. Hence,  film as an object of academic inquiry began with the observation that its technological difference from other forms of art give it unique and socially meaningful qualities. (Eisenstein and Benjamin were of course drawing on even earlier criticism and philosophy, e.g., [here] but it is generally accepted that their essays are the seminal starting points for giving the field its self-definition.) Hence, starting in the 1950s, universities began to create programs in film studies. Such programs emerged primarily out of the departments of English, modern languages, and comparative literature who grappled with the question of film’s essential difference from theater, poetry, and the novel. At smaller schools, such programs remained part of the English department or interdisciplinary programs, but at larger schools they eventually acquired a life of their own and became independent departments of film and media studies, communications, or cultural studies.

A further aspect of film studies is its interdisciplinarity. This is indicated by the term “studies” in its name. We can compare it to other sorts of studies: ethnic studies, gender studies, environmental studies, peace studies, food studies, postcolonial studies, etc., a long list of secondary programs that clearly differ from the primary disciplines of biology, psychology, literature, history, etc., none of which are “studies.” What does the “studies” part of the nomenclature of “film studies” mean? One of the earliest theorizations of the “interdisciplinary” is Roland Barthes 1971 essay “From Work to Text” which argues that interdisciplinary study does not just bring together two disciplines but rather produces an entirely new object of study. Hence, “studies.” One feature of interdisciplinary “studies” is that they tend to raise questions about the traditional disciplines whose methodologies are being hybridized and adapted to these new object of inquiry. For example, for my own discipline of literature, such “studies” as gender studies, ethnic studies, race studies, and postcolonial studies all throw into question the basic assumptions about literary value and the culture that was dominated by the elite, white men of imperialistic nations. Similarly, for the field of anthropology (originally a discipline in which European men studied the culture of non-European peoples), the emergence of postcolonial perspectives and deconstructive strategies of reading led to a critique of itself as a politically motivated discipline. Thus, in a strange way, such studies might not only be “interdisciplinary” for they also present a critical perspective on the integrity and coherence of the disciplines. In one of the foundational books on the new field of Cultural Studies, editors Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treicher suggest that cultural studies is not just interdisciplinary but “anti-disciplinary.” Paradoxically, the rigor of “studies” derives not from a consistent methodology but from interdisciplinary borrowing and innovation. To put it simply, the point is to think outside the box.

What does this teach us about where film and media studies is going?

First of all, if what makes film studies a unique field of academic field of inquiry is the nature of the technology after which it is named, then new technologies would assuredly mean new objects of study. The question that has plagued film studies programs since the emergence of television is whether these new technologies can simply be incorporated into film studies as merely a variation of the same. Or, are these different technologies different enough to require a new academic discipline. To put it another way, the entire premise behind the creation of film studies is that its mode of production, distribution, and reception is so different from other art forms that it required new interdisciplinary modes of inquiry and could not be merely incorporated into English and modern language departments.  If this is the case, we might argue that today’s digital media and multi-media productions are in fact not just an updated, more advanced variation of film, but an entirely different medium. Just as the new technology of film led to the creation of new “film studies” programs, so must the new multi-media technologies and internet lead us to the creation of new something-or-other programs. Or maybe not.

In illustration of this, earlier this year I attended a panel called “African Film Making in the Digital Era” at Columbia University as part of New York’s annual African Film Festival in which a panel of scholars, film-makers, and film distributors all observed a change in how movies were being consumed in Africa. The most common way to view movies is now on smartphones, and the effect of this shift is that young film-makers were adapting to this new technology by producing shorter, serialized films. Likewise, in the United States, the emergence of various video-streaming platforms such as Netflix and Hulu have led to the popularity of extended, complex plot structures of serialized dramas such as The Wire and Breaking Bad.

Hence, just as the word “media” was added to the name of the Society of Cinema and Media Studies a decade ago, we might now also add new subjects such as social media and digital humanities. Or, we might simply ask whether what is really being studied here is the history of technology — technology studies, whose interdisciplinary approach analyzes technology as a social and cultural phenomenon. How are these new fields of digital humanities and technology studies related to the older film and media studies? This is an important and difficult question to which I have no answer.

This new technology actually changes the field of film studies in another way. In the past, there was a clear distinction between “film studies” programs that emphasized complex theoretical analysis and “film schools” that trained individuals how to make films. Programs in film-making generally resided in large universities with the financial resources to support the necessary equipment and classroom architecture (e.g., camera equipment, lighting equipment, film processing rooms, not to mention reels and reels of celluloid.) Rarely did the theorist and the film-maker mix company. But the new digital and multi-media platforms and means of rapid distribution actually enable smaller liberal arts schools to create programs that mix small-scale multi-media production and cultural analysis. Because the new technology is itself a hybrid form, it is perhaps more open to self-theorization than the high-art aspirations of “film.”

It might be also worth taking stock of yet another ironic paradox about this technology. At precisely the moment when traditional film studies programs are raising questions about the death of film, the new, cheaper, smaller, and more adaptable technologies that are replacing film have enabled smaller colleges to imagine their own undergraduate programs in film and multi-media production.

But it’s not just technology that has changed. So too has the political and social configuration of the world. In the past, film studies programs were often linked to studies of “national” cultures, so it was once common to offer classes in French cinema or Italian neorealism. The idea is that certain nations possess unique cultures that are given shape by the idiosyncratic styles and genius of individual authors, artists, and movie directors. Certainly, it is true that different nations have different relations to movies, not only due to cultural differences, but also due to legal and governmental structures. France, for instance, is highly protective of its movie industry and its subsidized film industry allows directors to follow their artistic goals without as much concern for their marketability (in contrast to the for-profit Hollywood model.)

Three movements in the 1960s and 70s put such nationalistic curricula in question: civil rights, feminism, and anti-colonial independence. Hence, film studies programs began to foreground notions of race, gender, and ethnicity, and began to also notice the ways that the film industries of imperial nations (France, England, the United States) affect the emerging industries of their former colonies. As I mentioned in the introduction to this blog, film studies now borrows theories about globalization from economics, sociology, political science, and cultural studies to re-think the nature of film production, distribution, and consumption as a transnational phenomenon.  It’s not just that the film industry has globalized or that giant multinational corporations have taken over the world. It’s that the dissemination of digitally produced, hybrid multi-media through the internet is part of a network of transnational partnerships that transform local communities.  Some theorists identify this shift toward more “global” frames for analyzing culture as the 1960s when African and Asian colonies gained independence from Europe and the United States revised its immigration policy to be more open to people from those places, but other scholars point to the uniqueness of the 1990s after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the creation of the World Trade Organization, and the rapid expansion of non-governmental organizations. Hence, if we are to imagine the future of film studies (or whatever we want to now call it), we might want to consider its relation to other pedagogical endeavors such as global citizenship and civic engagement that involve students in programs of experiential learning that put them in close contact with diverse communities.

To conclude, maybe someone might moan that cinema has gone the way of the VHS video player, and that kids today just don’t appreciate artistic cinema (so beholden they are to the cultural wasteland of social media.) Such persons might even wish the world would return to that august moment in film studies history when pretentious Francophiles hung out in Greenwich Village cafes, reading The New Yorker, sipping absinthe, smoking Gauloises, and musing opaquely about avant-garde cinema,  but that would be silly. It was silly back when people actually did that, but it’s just as silly to muse opaquely about the death of cinema. Instead, we should take stock of our historic moment and more pragmatically imagine ways of teaching the future of film studies that recognize that film is no longer the central object of study, that a program in film studies must include cultural critiques of both technology and globalization, and that film studies might be productively linked to programs in experiential learning that foster civic engagement.

The Voice, Image, and Story of The Reluctant Fundamentalist

23 Jun

A few years ago, for my introductory course on post-colonial literature, I taught the novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, published in 2007 by Mohsin Hamid, which was reviewed very positively (e.g., see herehere, and here) and received numerous awards. Many of my students told me they liked it because it provoked them to think about the World Trade Center attack of 9/11/2001 in new and more complex ways; however, the highly emotional and complex issue of 9/11 and the American response to it were only one of the reasons I included the novel on the syllabus. A personal reason was that I really liked his first novel, Moth Smoke, and wanted to check out his second one. (I have recently also read his third novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, published just a few months ago.)  The more academic reason to include it on the syllabus near the end of the semester was to move the students from post-colonial literature as it had been originally conceived in the 1970s and 80s by theorists such as Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak toward the questions about globalization and international finance that came to dominate scholarly debates among those same theorists in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The field has changed, and indeed Hamid has called himself a post-postcolonial writer. Last week, I was motivated to re-read the novel because it was made into a film by the well-regarded director Mira Nair. I went to the theater with much curiosity. Reviews of the film  were much less positive than those of the book, and in adapting the novel to the screen, Nair made some very significant changes — changes that were criticized harshly in this New York Times review for losing all the subtlety and complex ambiguity of the novel.

Although I generally agree with that review, I don’t want to repeat the so-often repeated refrain that “the novel is always better than the movie.” I don’t think that’s always true. I also don’t wish to simply lament the changes Nair made to the story. The medium is different, so changes had to be made, and we should receive those changes with an open mind. Some of the details that she changed were, in my view, actually an improvement. Instead, I want to raise some questions of more practical value for the aspiring writer and filmmaker about the idea of voice and its relationship to image, plot, and meaning.

The novel begins with the tantalizing line, “Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance?” It is almost as if the novelist is addressing the reader, but of course it is one character speaking to another. The entire novel is a monologue, one man narrating his life to a stranger, while the two men eat dinner and walk around the city of Lahore, Pakistan. We never know who, or what, the other man is, except that he is American — an especially “quiet American” if I may make a joking allusion to the Graham Greene novel. Hints are dropped that he may be an operative for the U.S. government, but nothing at all is ever revealed, and we don’t even know why the narrator wants to talk to him in the first place. The structure of the novel creates a doubling effect so that we feel the narrator is not only talking to the unknown man, guiding him through Lahore and though his life, but also talking to us, the reader, explaining the feelings and complexities of people in Pakistan. Hence, the success of the novel — what keeps the plot and meaning alive and moving — is that we never see or know this American, because he is virtually us, whoever we might be.

To summarize the story that the narrator tells his unknown audience, it begins in New York City in the summer of 2001. The narrator’s name is Changez (pronounced Chon-guez, but it’s obvious that the name is meant to be a pun on the word “changes.”), and he has just graduated from Princeton University and been offered a job as a financial analyst for a prestigious “valuation firm.” His job is to assess the worth of other firms and make recommendations about how to increase that worth by cutting labor costs, selling off assets, etc. His company’s approach is described as focusing on the “fundamentals,” and although Mohsin Hamid never explicitly makes the connection, we might speculate that he has in mind the “market fundamentalism” of the Chicago school of economics that dominates the world of high finance and the International Monetary Fund. This approach to economics and policy has been criticized by eminent economists such as Joseph Stiglitz, journalists such as Naomi Klein, and even wealthy investors such as George Soros. One of the main twists of the novel is this play on the word “fundamentalism” since before we begin reading the novel we might assume that the sort of fundamentalism that this Pakistani-born, Princeton-educated man is “reluctant” to adopt is the fundamentalist Islam of terrorists, some of whom reside in his home country. However, what we eventually learn is that the fundamentalism the character is relectant to adopt and eventually comes to reject is the market fundamentalism of American financial institutions and his own employer.  At the same time that he begins his new job, he also begins a romance with a white, American classmate, who is an aspiring novelist, and whose name Erica is clearly a pun on America (Am Erica), since his relationship to her mirrors his relationship to the country and his job. She has not been able to get over a longterm childhood boyfriend, Chris, who died unexpectedly of cancer. After the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, things change for Changez. His love for America and for his job are overwhelmed by the anti-Islamic rage and prejudice he feels around himself and the policies of America towards his country. Erica is also affected by 9/11 and emotionally retreats into a nostalgic past centered around her dead boyfriend Chris. She removes herself from Changez, is put into a psychiatric institution, and eventually dies of melancholy. Changez quits his job and moves back to Lahore, Pakistan, where he becomes a popular college professor.

For the most part, the movie keeps this plot. But before I continue, check out the movie’s trailer:

One minor change that is an improvement is that Erica is less of a symbol in the movie and more a real human being. She does not waste away and die; rather she and Changez simply separate. Her psychological issues actually seem to have a more sensible cause since she was the accidental cause of her boyfriend’s death when she drove a car while drunk. Instead of being a novelist, she is a visual artists, which makes sense since the movie is likewise a visual medium. The catalyst for the breakup between her and Changez is not simply 9/11 but the work of art she makes about her relationship with Changez which he finds offensive in the context of 9/11 because of the Islamic stereotypes it invokes. This is one of the minor changes to the story that director Mira Nair makes, and I like it not just because the female character is more believable and human, rather than an imaginary construct of the male ego, but also because it draws attention to the key question of art, image, and meaning. The conflict between Changez and Erica begins because of a difference in interpretation, and this might alert the viewer of the movie that they too should question their interpretation of what they are watching. I say that “it might” do this, or it could have done this, but the movie’s focus on the sexual relationship between the two characters overwhelms this more cognitive, interpretive dimension.

However, the more significant and problematic change is the entirely new story-line that is added. Instead of an unknown American, the character is very much known. He is a journalist working as a secret agent for the American government. Somehow, Changez is aware of all this. The movie adds some rather complicated circumstances around the conversation between the two men in order to give the movie some dramatic action and suspense. The journalist has been led to believe that Changez might be part of a radical, anti-American Islamic movement that has kidnapped the American professor who works at Changez’s school. According to one reviewer [here], the movie is very deliberately grafting the real case of a kidnapped American journalist, Daniel Pearl (see this report in the NY Times) onto Hamid’s story. As the movie’s plot eventually reveals, the CIA and the journalist were mistaken about Changez’s politics. He is not the radical fundamentalist they assumed he had turned into. As Changez’s explains, he has come to reject all fundamentalisms, both the religious and the economic. The movie’s most obvious message is against prejudice and stereotypes. Mira Nair explains that goal in an interview here:

It is Nair’s committment to this message that probably led her to be far more blatant and heavy-handed in showing scenes of Changez experiencing such prejudice and abuse. In these scenes, the police are so obnoxious and stupid that the audience easily empathises with Changez, who is a somewhat heroic figure by the end of the movie. Most of these scenes are not in the novel at all, and others are given less description, so that the prejudice Changez describes in the novel is more abstract and psychological. In the novel, Changez is not such a heroic character, not quite so easy to empathize with, and not at all clear about his own agenda and reasons for talking to the strange and strangely quiet American.

In addition, Nair’s rather simplistic message of liberal openness to others is slightly different from the message of the novel. The novel poses a much sharper question about the contradictory feelings the character Changez has about how to understand economic and personal success. In my view, the novel could have done even more than it did to show in concrete terms what is meant by “market fundamentalism” and what market fundamentalism’s inherent, self-contradictory problems are. After all, there is plenty of material available for him to use, such as the Nobel-prize economist Amartya Sen’s aggressive critique. But Hamid perhaps wisely refrains from such a polemic, which might have undermined the novel’s committment to moral ambiguity, the human psyche, and the play of semantic meaning. In contrast to the novel, whose plot twist is the meaning of the word fundamentalism, Mira Nair’s movie focuses on cultural identity and prejudices.  It almost seems as though the director Mira Nair has forgotten the Hamid’s double entendre on the word “fundamentalism” until one single sentence near the end, and instead of exploring what that could mean as Hamid does, she offers image after image of Pakistani culture and angry Muslims that her American and European audience already expect. The repeated refrain is that things aren’t always as they seem — a refrain that should remind us that we are watching a movie and that we should question our own points of view, except that it doesn’t.

Why doesn’ it?

The answer to this question takes us back to the question I posed at the beginning of this blog post about the difference between the medium of print and the medium of film, and this includes the relationship of voice to plot and meaning. The novel’s strength is the voice of the narrator and the first-person structure of the narration. The narrator’s voice appears so emotionally detached from the events in spite of the fact that he is telling about highly emotional events. It’s as if Changez has changed into a different person, now looking back on his life not quite objectively, but through a fog of time. The entire event of the novel — a complete stranger pouring out his life story to another — is somewhat improbable, and this reminds us that this is precisely the sort of conversation we never actually have, but maybe should have. The novel’s structure also keeps us skeptical about the truth of Changez’s story. We don’t know anything for sure. The American character is a blank that allows us to put ourselves in that place, and this along with the twist on our expectations about the meaning of the word “fundamentalist” forces us to think critically about ourselves.

I am reminded of the philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s joke about Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. In justifying the doctrine of preemptive strike, Rumsfeld claims there are known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. In other words, stuff we definitely know about the enemy, stuff that we know that we don’t know about the enemy, and stuff we don’t even know that we don’t know. Therefore, for Rumsfeld, to avoid another 9/11, preemptive strike is justified. Zizek observes that Rumsfeld neglected to take his logic all the way, that also there are unknown knowns — and these are things we ought to know but repress. This includes things about ourselves (our own guilt and culpability) and things about the basic humanity of the “other” that we repress in order to demonize them. My argument is that the structure of Hamid’s novel asks us to confront our own unknown knowns.

Of course, the movie is a very different medium. It can’t simply be a first-person voice, because then it would be just one person talking on the screen for an hour. Instead, it must dramatise the story, render it in a series of images, and as soon as it shows the image of something, then the characters and events appear to us as actual “events” rather than narrated story or “voice.” Hence, the movie gives us a back story to the American journalist who is listening to Changez’s tale, and we see other characters interacting with Changez during this conversation, and based on those interactions we get a sense of the complex and basically good man he “really” is. Ultimately, we feel like we understand both characters’ points of view, so we are never really asked to question our own. Moreover, another difference between the novel and movie is that the novel relies heavily on linguistic play with the names Changez and Erica and the concept of fundamentalism. The activity of reading is a slower, more reflective activity so that we are given time to think about the meaning of words. How can a movie accomplish such linguistic and conceptual play through images that move relatively fast?

In my view, the movie can do all the things that the novel does, and perhaps even do it better. Such movies as The Third Man, Memento, and Dead Again all force the audience to question the nature of what they see on the screen. The most important aspect of any film is not what it shows, but rather what it conceals. For instance, suspense is created when a character points at something but we the audience can’t see what he’s pointing at, or when something happens, but we can’t see the cause of it. So, considering that what gives a film its meaning is precisely what is concealed and how that concealment gives audience a space to begin using their imagination and think critically — and considering that this sort of game of showing and concealing is precisely also the structure of Hamid’s novel —  what should Mira Nair have done differently?

I will leave it at that.