2015 Film festival experiences in review – Montreal, Tribeca, Margaret Mead, and DOC NYC

17 Dec

The following started out as just kind of notes to myself to remind me how I felt about films I saw at this year’s Montreal World Film Festival. So I apologize in advance to my (at most) six readers for writing about something of no interest to anyone but myself. But then I realized, due to family circumstances beyond my control, almost all my moviegoing this year was to festivals, at least since this spring, when I saw the magnificent Thomas Hardy adaptation, Far from the Madding Crowd.  But, largely thanks to the excuse of class trips, I was able to get to two films each at Tribeca, Margaret Mead, and DOC NYC, which I’ll discuss below.

My first festival has always been Montreal though.  This August I was able to go to the Montreal Festival for the first time in two years, and just for the first weekend; classes started the day after I returned (and there was the matter of a visit to the emergency room in between my return and my first class – but that’s another story) and I haven’t had a moment to breathe or catch up until now.  Montreal always has something like 400 films to choose from, lots of documentaries, from every corner of the world, much less commercial than its Toronto cousin.  While I am always drawn to Asian cinema, this year I seemed to lose my touch when it comes to choosing memorable experiences from the catalogue: ten films in four days, but only two were what I would call very good, one was from Nepal (which I’ll get to below) and the other from China.  For some reason though the festival website has taken down the program, so I have to use Google to find their names, since they’ll probably never be distributed here in the U.S.

I saw two films from China, actually, both on the same theme of traditional ways of life being displaced by the market forces of modernization.  This must be a source of anxiety in China, because I’ve already seen two other films on the same theme: the outstanding Canadian documentary, Up the Yangtze, which is actually more about the loss of traditional villages to dam-induced flooding, and Postmen in the Mountains, which I saw in Montreal thirteen years ago and which remains one of the best films I have ever seen at that festival.  So as I looked through the festival program, I thought, hey, this topic must be “a thing” in China and since cultural sustainability is a theme I have already announced I am interested in, I should check these out.  These two films were Drifting Goats, about the end of the river ferries on goatskin floats, and Song of the Phoenix. about the dying tradition of suona players.

Drifting Goats is a father-son tale (like Postmen in the Mountains) in which the father is a ferryman on the old-fashioned river boats, and while the ferries are being replaced with more modern motorboats,  the growing local tourism industry is basically buying out the ferrymen and turning the picturesque and now exoticized ferries into a tourist attraction.  The stark choice comes down to, either you join the tourist industry and continue to make your livelihood from the boats, by giving rides to tourists, or you give up your ferry and your lifestyle and you retire.  With the son imploring the resistant father to recognize the flow of progress, eventually the ferrymen embrace the opportunity to stay on the river and tourism becomes the only way they can sustain their tradition – a happy ending in which traditions remain economically viable, which is what really matters, even in neoliberal rural China.

In contrast, Song of the Phoenix, while teasing us with the possibility that the folk musicians may give up their instruments and their folk music, stubbornly clings to the idea that traditional music and instruments cannot be replaced.  Nowhere is the criticism of pop commercialism more apparent then a kind of impromptu battle of the bands that arises when a pop group shows up to woo the village crowd away from the suona band.  Characters are not stuck in an idealized village setting and in fact the film acknowledges the tremendous pull away from the villages towards the industrialized wage-economy city.  But rather than espousing the liberal compromise of adapting to the new world, the film holds out for the necessary indomitability of folk music, even in a commercial world, and even for that matter in a commercial motion picture.  It is worth a second viewing.

Of course I’m going to be more favorable to a film with this point of view – and indeed if the story had gone the other way, I would have liked it far less and been less inclined to overlook its conventional or predictable elements.  I tend to have a strong rejection towards films no matter how well-made that espouse a reactionary point of view or that ask us to smugly accept the status quo (especially around issues of violence).  Rather than being open-minded as my society tells me I should be, I tend to think of the values expressed in the film and the damage they can cause by encouraging complacency and self-satisfaction.  It’s not that I can’t learn anything from that with which I disagree, but I do think we need to remember that cinema and television inevitably have an impact that exceeds other popular art forms.

Anyway, that said, even an art film like Postmen in the Mountains can have an impact, as it did on me, even more than just preaching to those naturally inclined to agree.  I saw it only once so far, in 2002 at the Montreal Film Festival, where, I just learned, it won the Audience Choice Award. Though it was made in China in 1999, it wasn’t released in the U.S. until 2004.  (Eventually I’ll have to buy the DVD to see it again.)  Also a father-son tale, it’s the story of an elderly postman in rural Hunan province who has a three-day mail route to all the mountain villages, a job from which he will be retiring and handing off to his son after this last round.  I still remember not only the great performances, but the spectacular cinematography, reminiscent of Chinese watercolors in its composition.  But more than just nostalgia or a theme of anti-modernity, the film shows more than any other (including Song of the Phoenix) what is lost when the old ways will be no more.  It’s not just that those lifestyles and means of subsistence will be gone, it’s also that there’s something very deeply embedded in those practices that, when gone, will change the nature of humanity.  Part of the beauty of the film is that this is implicit, and I wish Song of the Phoenix shared more of its depth; after all, if delivering mail can be rendered meaningful on screen,  the role of traditional music for both villagers and the artists themselves and why it’s survived so long ought to be explored some.  For me, coming from a society in which success is tied in with achievement, and wealth, Postmen was the first I had seen to make the case that ministry to others is a noble achievement and necessary to maintaining the glue that keeps communities, and families for that matter, together.  You don’t have to know a lot about China to understand that people must be incredibly anxious about this, and that both modernization and the consumer economy make those moral choices that much more insanely difficult.

Speaking of both modernity and mountains, the other outstanding film I saw in Montreal this year was the Nepalese art film, Serdhak – The Golden Hill, a low-budget high-altitude film set in the Himalayan villages of northern Nepal.  Shot with a very small crew and using natural light, even for some impressive interior scenes, this independent, naturalistic film avoids cliches while depicting the everyday dramas of village life, in the kinds of villages that outsiders never get to see.  The mountains are not just gorgeous backdrops for exotic effect but are the land on and around which people survive.  (As opposed to the also outstanding documentary, Meru, where the mountains exist to be conquered by humans.  I loved it anyway, largely because of the photography but also the editing.)   The characters and their lives are real, neither sentimentalized nor overly dramatized and the film has the feeling of conveying a story very much within the framework of real life.  There too one of the internal battles characters must deal with is the pull of education in the city, with the ties to the home villages, and what will be lost in terms of beauty when educated young people must leave these villages for city – which becomes synonymous with modern – life.

Also breathtaking, in a different way, is the documentary Song of Lahore, which hasn’t received anywhere near the critical attention it deserves, although it was runner-up in the audience award for documentaries at the Tribeca Film Festival.  It tells one story spread out over two continents: the suppression of Pakistani, or Punjabi, traditional music under Islamist regimes, and the invitation of the musicians to join Wynton Marsalis at his Jazz at Lincoln Center program.  The film is about love and made with love: the love that the musicians have for their music, but also the love they have for one another and their families, expressed through music, as well as the love for a city and what it once offered culturally.  The way that the musicians in the film articulate their feelings about music, especially when it is silenced, is incredibly moving, and in a way useful to those of us who think about art and culture as a humanizing influence.  Co-directed by a Pakistani Oscar winner and an American, the film is so timely it’s hard to believe it hasn’t gotten distribution, and yet its themes transcend current events.  It’s one of the great films I have seen about music and musicians, shot and edited with warmth and compassionate sophistication.

Films can take us inside worlds we would never think we could see, and in documentary film this is especially true today.  At the Margaret Mead Festival, I saw the recent history of Kashmir and the city of Srinigar through the eyes of three artists – two of whom also incredibly insightful verbally – in the extraordinary documentary, Kasheer: Art, Culture, and the Struggle for Azadi, which is rich and thoughtful on at least two levels: telling the story of human political conflict through visual arts, while reflecting on what visual art can do in a time of upheaval and violence.  It also is one of the rare films I have seen to treat folk art and craft with the same respect as fine and graphic arts, and this is due largely to respectful camera work and editing that is nothing less than brilliant.  Likewise, The Anthropologist, which appeared at DOC NYC takes us to Siberia, Kiribati, and the ice glaciers in Peru with anthropologist Susan Crate to show us her work on climate change and its impact on culture.  My adult students who attended with me came out with the firm belief that we need not only more anthropologists, but more jobs to do this kind of necessary work.

Finally from Tribeca, I want to recall the landmark Romanian film, Aferim!, the first film from that country to acknowledge, let alone criticize, the enslavement and mistreatment of Roma people (known also as Gypsies) well into the 19th century.  Worth seeing for that reason alone, but also for the stunning black-and-white photography, the writing, and the disturbing depiction of Romanian 19th century mores – or is it human nature? – and one really unforgettable, incredible period hat.  I see that it’s going to be distributed in the U.S. in late January 2016.

(There.  Glad to have finally gotten all that off my mind and penned down, so to speak, however superficial it all may be.)

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A Brief note on Malala, her father, and the War on Education

23 Nov

One of the most striking moments for me in the new documentary film, He Named Me Malala, comes in the words of her father, Ziauddin Yusufzai, who is credited with having, at the very least, a strong intellectual influence on his daughter. He says at one point, “Education gives you the power to question things. Education gives you the power to challenge things. To be independent.” (Apologies if the syntax is not 100% accurate. I went reaching for my notebook in the dark theater at the DOC NYC Film Festival, but since then, I have seen this quote transcribed in various ways on different websites.) I kept thinking of my college students with whom I was seeing the film. Are they getting this message from their college careers? (I’m sure this group did not get that in their high schools, although some do.) For those who read my earlier post on Senator Rubio, who has since gone on to repeat the message I wrote about back in August into the most recent debate performance in November, that’s not what “education” is for – it’s for getting a job and increasing earnings. At least that’s the case for low-income and working-class students, not necessarily the elite who will go on to become the decisionmakers. Ziauddin’s ideas have come to be radical in the vacuum of education-for-the-economy mentality that pervades pretty much most of the world.

As for Malala herself, a friend posted a quotation of hers, which dates back at least as early as October 2013, in which she said, “The only thing that can fight terrorism is education.” While much has been made of the criticism that she is a media darling, and perhaps even a creation, of the West’s need for a “safe Muslim,” she has stood up to that by admonishing President Obama about the use of drones. And in the wake of this months bombings and shootings in Lebanon, Paris, and Bamako, she emerges as the sole voice for an approach to terrorism that calls for more education, less ignorance, and greater understanding as a way to bring people together. Have any of our Presidential candidates in the U.S. called for more education as a response to terrorism? Those who turn to terrorism do so out of the false belief that violence, especially against innocents, is the path to social change (a social change that makes claims to justice, that is). This, of course, has never worked in human history.

On my office door, I have put up a bumper sticker that reads, “In a war on education, no one wins.” The reaction worldwide against Syrian refugees in the wake of the Paris and Lebanon attacks shows just that. Public opinion is whipped up against the millions of innocents fleeing the same violence and the same perpetrators who carried out the attacks in Paris and Lebanon. But the fallacy of public opinion polls is that they rest on the false assumption that all opinions are based on equivalent foundations of knowledge. Most people who are against allowing in refugees have no idea about refugee resettlement processes and screenings, about who refugees are and what they have been through, about the history of the region from which they are fleeing, and so on. Differences of opinion are fine, and welcome in a democracy. But they have to be based on some kind of empirical knowledge, evidence, or understanding of history, not just hot air and smoke. How can you have a valid opinion about something about which you know nothing? Otherwise you are susceptible to every prejudice and every hatemonger out there. Which, of course, is what we see, as war spreads.

Only education gives you the power to question things, to be independent, and to truly fight terrorism. It must be our first response to any crisis.

Rubio’s philosophy on higher education

21 Aug

I’ve written before (see 16 Feb 2014) on the new and dangerous trend in higher education policy in the U.S., which is to suggest that “college is not for everyone,” as if that general shaking out takes place meritocratically, independent of class and race.  Even the liberal wing of our mainstream political spectrum, in the form of President Obama, is comfortable going to high schools (but not affluent ones) and bringing this message.  The economist Robert Reich, to his credit, shows that a four-year college degree is currently the best predictor of higher income, and while he does argue that college shouldn’t be the only route to the middle class, he also says, significantly, “I don’t believe the main reason to go to college – or to choose one career over another – should be to make lots of money.  Hopefully, a college education gives young people tools for leading full and purposeful lives, and having meaningful careers.  Even if they don’t change the world for the better, I want my students to be responsible and engaged citizens.”  Let’s not forget the argument that more, and more critical, education is beneficial, if not necessary, to a functioning democracy, especially in countries that wield tremendous global power.

But this idea that expanded vocational training is the best way to reform higher education in the 21st century, and open up the middle class to more people, is much stronger on the right side of the spectrum, including leaders and presidential candidates who have gone after their state university systems, for example Governor Walker of Wisconsin.  This point of view bears examination.

Several days ago (18 Aug 2015), Senator Marco Rubio made a stump speech at the Iowa State Fair in which he reiterated several themes and policy suggestions about higher education that he had been making in previous speeches.  And yet, two nights of Google searches turn up no transcripts of his speech in any newspaper articles.  When I heard an excerpt on NPR, I wanted to stop in my tracks, because even the sound bite revealed so much about how conservatives see the need and potential for higher education.  But the speech itself warrants detailed, critical examination because it reveals not only what Republican conservatives (and economic neoliberals) think of the value of higher education, but how higher education can contribute to extending greater economic inequality, not ending it.

As a public service, I have transcribed several sections of the speech.  Early on, he says,

I want this to remain a country where parents can do for their children what my parents did for me. My parents were born on the island of Cuba, they came to the United States in 1956, they barely spoke the language at the time, had no money and very little education…. They were able to leave all four of their children better off than themselves…

This is a significant opening, because not only does he reveal that his parents came before the Cuban Revolution, but what his parents did for him – to his and their credit – was to enable him to graduate from a four-year college after transferring twice, first from a small college (just before it went bankrupt, by the way) where he went on a football scholarship, then from a community college before graduating from the University of Florida and then law school.  So in a way, even though the market failed him, he and his family had the means for him, with scholarship assistance, to go from community college through a post-graduate degree.  The question that lingers is whether he wants, as he claims, to be able to do this for young Americans as it had been possible for him.

But curiously, his speech takes a different turn:

We have to modernize higher education. We cannot continue stuck with a 20th century higher education system, that tells everyone you either get a four-year degree, or you get nothing at all… The first thing we have to do is more vocational training. We need more people trained to be welders, and airplane mechanics, and machinists. These are good-paying jobs… A welder makes more than a political science major, and we need to train more young Americans to do it…

Does he speak of more young people having access to a four-year political science degree (like the one he received) or more access to law school?  And when he says that “A welder makes more than a political science major” (which may, according to Reich, be factually untrue), I would ask, More what?  More money, or more decisions that affect other people’s lives?  There is the false dichotomy of the bachelor’s-or-nothing, which doesn’t even exist now, and then there is this fallacious promotion of the idea that most young people are better off with vocational training because their income will be higher.  Not only untrue in the aggregate, but also because it overlooks the value added of being in a position of social and political influence that a college degree makes more likely.

Then he continues,

For example, a single mother raising two kids, who works full-time for nine dollars an hour as a home health aide, the only way she’s ever going to get a raise is to become a dental hygienist or a paralegal, but to do that she has to go back to school. And she can’t, because she has to work full-time and raise a family. I believe we need to have alternative accredited programs that allow people to get the equivalent of a degree, from alternative institutions that allow them to package learning, no matter how they acquired it. Let people learn online for free. Give them credit for what they’ve learned on their own. And suddenly that receptionist, instead of making ten dollars an hour or twelve dollars an hour can be a paralegal making $65,000 a year. I’m not saying we’re going to get rid of four-year colleges, they’re going to remain part of our program – after all, how are we going to get college football without them? I am saying this: We can’t keep graduating people with degrees that don’t lead to jobs. That’s why I believe that before you take out a student loan, schools should tell you how much people make when they graduate from that school with that degree. So you can decide if it’s worth borrowing $50,000 to major in Greek philosophy, because after all, the market for Greek philosophers has been very tight for two thousand years.

Let’s just ignore the complete denigration of the use-value of basically all of the Western intellectual tradition at the end there, shall we?  More important, to our argument, is the disingenuous wiggling that at first suggests vocational training is not only the most cost-effective but the only available opportunity for working adult students, and then goes on to suggest that people should be able to get credit for watching online videos (or whatever “learning online for free” means) and what they’ve learned on their own – essentially no formal education whatsoever.

This is also incredibly insulting to the working four-year college undergraduates whom I teach, those who do manage to find the time to work towards a Bachelor’s degree (and sometimes a Master’s degree) while managing jobs, careers, children (sometimes grandchildren), spouses (or children without spouses), and loans because they want something more fulfilling to them than just a manual trade or unskilled labor.  I would never have the nerve to suggest that they settle for a career they don’t want, nor would I be so patronizing to assume they don’t want to know about Greek philosophy or film history because they don’t “need” it to discharge their work duties.  As Professor Reich says, I want them to have fulfilling lives, where dignity is worth a lot more than simply bringing home and spending a paycheck.

So there are clearly two tracks in Rubio’s educational vision for 21st century America.  Those who can afford to can attend college and support those college football games, preferably without loans unless the students have a guarantee their majors will get them good jobs, which as we know in fact is not the only thing majors are good for.  (And preferably not at colleges they have to leave because the schools go bankrupt or can’t afford to keep academic or even athletic programs funded.) Those who can’t afford school without costly loans can go to vocational schools, or even better, can “learn online for free,” and then go into the workforce in well-paying jobs, but jobs that, regrettably, have little social, economic, or political influence. It’s “the only way they’re going to get a raise,” as he says.  I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t become welders or dental hygienists or paralegals if they want or need to, only that if they want to enter a career where they will have more influence in the democratic process and the economy, or they want a career that they themselves find more fulfilling, they should be able to choose that path and have access to the funds to make that possible – rather than be ruled out because they come from a low-income background or went to an under-resourced high school.  Following Rubio’s logic, there will be less need for federal aid both to universities and colleges (whose enrollment base will provide the necessary revenue), and to students because there will be low-cost options available like vocational schools, training programs, and of course free Internet, so that they shouldn’t have to depend on the government to pay for degrees that won’t pay off financially.

This is not doing for America’s children what his parents did for him.  Maybe a little Greek philosophy would help him understand this.

From Athens: The Dangers of agoraphilia

23 Jun

Last night on the Athens metro I started a conversation with a young man because in this trip to Athens, I am more eager than ever to learn about the current mood of the people, how they feel about Syriza, the economy, and the E.U. It may just be me, or because I tend to talk mostly with immigrants, but Greece has a much more open feel to it, a markedly different atmosphere than when I was here in 2009 and 2012.

I was heading to the same place I stayed last time, with friends in a residential neighborhood, but in the last year a new metro station has opened up near their home so I no longer have to wait to transfer to a bus from the metro. I asked if they were still extending the subway even further, and how it had differed from ten years ago, but he said he only really started riding the metro seven years ago when he was at university. I asked him what he studied, and he said, almost apologetically, political science and history, with a special interest in music, even though these days there isn’t much he can do with that in terms of work. I asked him what his job was, and he said he hands out leaflets (although there was some humility here on his part, or literalism, since it came out later he is a guitarist in a band). He wanted to pursue his studies in post-graduate school, but there was only one program in Greece that dealt with these interests, and they take only 20 students a year, “and you need money.” I’ve learned that at least undergraduate education is free here at public universities, if you have the scores to get in. I asked him about studying in another country in Europe, since his English was quite good. He said, yes, with money anything is possible, but without money, well, no.

He didn’t know about political music in the U.S. of the rock era, and though he knew Pete Seeger he did not know Phil Ochs (and I later sent him websites about Phil Ochs, who I suspected would be a kindred spirit).

I told him in the U.S. it is possible to study for a master’s or doctorate, with money of course, but that even by us the possibility for finding work in a field related to this is difficult. (The default for us is law school, among the educated class, but I didn’t say this.) I did tell him the rough statistic – I think I saw it somewhere – that even among Ph.D.’s only one in eight is in a full-time teaching or university position. We came up the escalator and though it was nearly ten p.m., a man was handing out leaflets about working from home. My new friend took one, and said to me, “We are misleading the people, telling them they can make money from home.”

For some reason, this conversation and the issues it raises lodged deeply within me. No mystery there, as I was and am one who has wagered everything on pursuing the questions I am interested in. That is the life of the scholar, though it need not – and should not – be restricted to scholars. Still, therein are the catch and the contradiction. We have, anthropologically speaking, two worlds: the world of youth, in which questions of history, politics, science, philosophy, literature, the arts and music, matter, and the world the adults have made, which channels everyone into wage-based occupations.   The round and open-ended questions of the student do not fit into the square cubicle of the workplace. There is no place for so many students like the guitarist, like myself, unless one is extremely lucky, privileged to be connected, and tenacious, in some combination that borders on the magical. What future is there for anyone to ask questions, in places and ways that matter, in the constant slog for reliable wages?

There has to be more that we can do than shrug and say, “Too bad, brother. Now grow up and go hand out some leaflets.”

The so-called “free” market has created, and continues to re-create, a system that is anything but free. The market dictates what is considered a worthy use of time and intellect, and that most worthy use is, of course, profit. Within that system, where is the space for the most imaginative and curious minds, unless – again with luck, privilege, and connections – one can find a way to spin that yarn of curiosity into gold. The irony is not lost on me that here in Greece there is no use for philosophy, and almost no place for it either.

And what about “use” for that matter? Even within the scholarly community, use-value is not a primary criterion for good scholarship. In an ideal world it need not be, and in fact, we need scholars and teachers of every aspect of the world. But in terms of cultural studies and historical studies, where does the spiral of knowledge lead, if not often down a chute from which there is no connection with application?

The Market has not yet realized, and will not realize until it is too late, that we are in a global crisis, particularly generated by climate change but also by the over-consumption of natural resources. It is precisely at this time that we need political scientists and historians, social scientists and social workers, ethicists and philosophers, artists and musicians, in addition to natural scientists to avert the coming extinction of our species, and of many others along the path.

In the social sciences there may be no more compelling problem than the question of mass migration over the next 35-50 years. With an 8 million increase in the number of refugees and displaced people in the last year alone, that crisis is not only beginning, but shows little chance of abating on its own. It represents, among other things, a complete abdication of responsibility and humanitarianism and brotherhood (if I may use that term in a gender-neutral way) on the part of all of our national and state governments. We don’t need 10 universities where those problems are being studied and solved, we need hundreds. We don’t need a handful of scholars engaging in research and the rest teaching as adjuncts or teaching too many classes with too many students to provide individual feedback. We need thousands. We need grants and start-up funds not just for a few tech innovators and “geniuses” who have already established themselves, we need seed funding for thousands of young people and the mentors with whom they will work, not in lecture classes of fifty people, but small research seminars of four and six.

There is tragedy in the fact that we cannot support our most curious and imaginative young thinkers, and that the pool of people who will be tasked with coming up with the solutions to the crises facing us will be so small as to limit the amount of research and interaction that can take place (not to mention the vital task of educating the young and ignorant not to follow blindly and in mindless hatred). If we want to find a cure to a disease, for example, we do not limit the number of people working on the problem to just ten or a hundred; we want thousands of minds engaged. So why are social problems, cultural problems, economic and philosophical problems any different?

How many thousands of young people are saying, I studied this in university because this was what I was interested in, but now the market tells me this is of no value? How many more thousands are saying, I am going to university, but I can only afford to study and master the material that will land me a job? And how many still more thousands are saying, If only I could go to university, this is what I would like to learn about and think about?

If Allen Ginsberg wrote that he “saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” then I am seeing the best minds of my and subsequent generations destroyed – consumed – by the market.

On Labor Day

1 Sep

Somehow the summer came and went, I got nothing written or revised (not on this blog, not in my professional life), and tomorrow I start a new full-time job, my first in over three years. I’ve written a little bit in informal comments on Facebook about my life as an adjunct, but I was inspired to say more after reading Robert Reich’s post this morning. I don’t know how to link to a Facebook post, but the operative quotations are these: “The official unemployment rate is 6.2 percent but if you include everyone working part-time who’d rather be in full-time jobs, and all those too discouraged even to look for work, the real rate is closer to 12.5 percent… A higher proportion of jobs are part-time, temporary, contract, or otherwise with unpredictable wages and hours than at any time on record.” I’ve been through all that personally the last three years. So I am setting this down in public as a kind of baseline post as I begin the next chapter in my career – an academic career at this point, having working in non-profits and museums for the first 16 or so years of my professional career, followed by five years of academic employment, with some consulting. Then three years of part-time research, adjunct positions, and summer school, while looking for something full-time in my field.

Here are my two operative facts and figures: In all that time, I tried to keep my employment record with no conspicuous holes or gaps, I applied for over one hundred positions, and I managed to only have 1-2 months on unemployment. The rest of the time I had some form of underemployment – not much money coming in, no health insurance (for 38 months), and no position that lasted longer than an academic year. I didn’t go on food stamps, qualified for the new Medicaid under Obamacare (though I ended up then making just too much money by the time I had to submit the application), and got to the point where if I hadn’t found something full-time in the last application cycle, I’d have had to have changed careers, or taught high school full-time. Over the last four years I applied for 131 full-time positions in universities, museums, and non-profits. I got rejected 130 times. And while I can’t say I have empirical proof that if you never give up you will eventually get something, I can say that had I given up at any point along the way, instead of coming back week in and week out, then I would have lost for sure. In the end it was not just persistence: I learned from my mistakes and shortcomings, I adjusted my search accordingly, re-worked my application materials and my interviewing skills. Though luck undoubtedly played a role, it was a combination of persistence and adaptability that set the stage. And in the end, I ended up with a wonderful position that offers all that I want, in a location where I want to be – I did not have to “settle” at all. It’s even a union position. And no, I did not know anyone on the hiring committee; it was a clean search. I am a statistic in so many groups: underemployed, overqualified academic, long-term without a position or health insurance, and this economy is not kind of any of these. There aren’t even enough positions for people in my situation, so we even can’t all be “lucky” (the worst I heard about was a job that attracted 450 applicants). I’m glad I ended up in the right column of the statistics, but I have many friends and colleagues who have not, and this Labor Day I hope they find subsistence and fulfillment in whatever field they end up in. These are bleak times. Not only are “good” jobs falling by the wayside (see Reich’s columns), but meaningful jobs that are tenable are becoming rarer still.

I heard a fascinating interview with Thomas Friedman on NPR this afternoon. I find him naive in the extreme – nowhere does he attribute any of these changes to the structure of the job market to forces like global consumer capitalism, the calculated ruthlessness of the ‘free’ market and its protectors, or the pressure of widening economic inequality. He suggests that entrepreneurship is going to be a vital skill for building a career, which suggests an extreme survival-of-the-fittest-go-getters, but also that higher education itself may go the way of the newspaper because the investment is getting larger but the preparation for the job market is even less certain. (He says this, without any examination of the question whether the purpose of higher education should be employment training, what it means to have an uninformed populace voting (or not) in a democracy, or the fact that we can’t all start global industries on our laptops and be hugely successful; someone is going to have to have the funds to purchase all the goods and have the money to invest. At least Jaron Lanier points out that if we minimize the number of professional jobs that pay a living or middle-class wage, we won’t have enough consumers with the disposable income to buy all the products that consumer capitalism has to sell to stay afloat. All of these “thinkers” and “futurists” fall into the new unquestioned belief of the age which is that the purpose of higher education is job readiness, and learning “just enough” to get a job and compete in the global marketplace, or to be an “innovator” (for the sake of innovation, or making money, or making things), which is how MOOCs will replace humanistic teaching and learning, critical literacy skills. This fails to recognize the essential link in a democracy – which Jefferson realized – which is that the people are ignorant (not informed, and not knowing how to question the concepts that are fed to them). Otherwise they vote what they think is their short-term self-interest, and this perpetuates empires and global environmental destruction. Hell, I even heard a TED talk (again on NPR) yesterday in which the lecturer – a million-dollar TED awardee! – says we really need nothing more for our education than access to the Internet and a grandmother to encourage us. These people are trying to scuttle higher education, and retool education merely to be preparation for working in someone else’s factory, and the odd Jeff Bezos will come along here or there and ‘save’ us. Friedman doesn’t acknowledge the gutting of higher education is already taking place, with the shift over the last 20 years from 70% of college courses being taught by full-time profs, to two-thirds being taught by part-timers with no benefits and 1/6 to 1/4 of the salary.

But back to Labor Day itself. The other story that has slipped up on us is that Labor Day used to mark the end of the summer and back to school. My father, a tax accountant who never got more than two weeks vacation any year in his working life, used to take the last two weeks of August off religiously every year, and go back to work the day after Labor Day. School didn’t start until then, and the school year ran from September to June. But this year, even more than before, I noticed more and more school districts and universities are now beginning in August. The Ferguson, Missouri school district had to cancel the first days of classes in the middle of August, while on the East Coast, which starts later, it feels like New Jersey may be the last state in which the school year begins after Labor Day. Most colleges and universities start the week before now, too. Labor Day weekend used to be the end of summer vacation and was a big tourist weekend, but as one friend pointed out to me in New York this weekend, really everybody is back to school or work in August these days. So even the concept of ‘summer’ itself as time off has been taken away from the American worker and the American student. One of the most pernicious ways in which Americans have perpetuated their own oppression is in allowing themselves to have so little vacation time, less than any other country. And that’s for people with paid vacation. Many American workers don’t even get that anymore. So instead of Labor Day marking the psychological end of summer, even if it ever did honor the American worker, it now is just another Monday holiday. And many districts want to move to year-round school anyway, which would strip teaching – the last of the professions to over a reasonable annual leave policy in the U.S. – of its humane vacation policy. I am lucky my new job will be at a university that, for now, begins after Labor Day (which means that, in theory, I will still be able to attend the Montreal World Film Festival even though I could not afford to do so this year). But we’ll see how long that calendar survives the attempts to shorten summer and force the school year to bear more similarity to the working world, since that is all it is seen to be good for anymore, anyway.

Artists follow me

16 May

I taught this past semester at Brooklyn College, and on my next to last day I had the kind of remarkable cosmic experience that seems to irregularly punctuate my life.  As it happens, I overslept and had to drive in from New Jersey for only the second time, which unfortunately is the fastest and perhaps cheapest way to commute, even as it is environmentally unsustainable and prevents me from getting any work done (other than audio books).  I park on the street near campus and as I was driving around looking for parking, I saw a delivery truck with wonderful deeply colored graffiti on the back.  I made a mental note where it was to go back and photograph it, so I quickly found a parking space, dumped the car, and backtracked to go take pictures.  As luck would have it, the truck had moved up the block, as it was delivering phone books (they still have them?) and so it was perfectly positioned on a side street corner and I was able to take pictures of all three sides.  The delivery guy didn’t mind even though his boss was in the driver’s seat in the cabin.

After I finished I turned and walked toward the college. Half a block away I hear someone behind me ask, “Do you like graffiti?” Up pulls a pizza delivery guy on a bicycle. He had seen me taking photos and tells me his friends had just painted that truck, right after they got out of jail for painting graffiti. He added – and I have to check this – that it’s now a felony and they will no longer send graffiti artists to Spofford (which it turns out has been closed since 2011), but now they are put right “in The Boat” – when I looked puzzled he clarified, “Riker’s Island,” where they will be held for a month. That’s why he’s given up graffiti, it’s not worth the risks, and he was leaving New York to join the Coast Guard soon. He also added the guys who had painted the truck I photographed had also done the tattoos on his arm.

Now I see there actually is a prison barge that’s part of the Riker’s Island prison complex. Another amazing thing I’ve learned about New York City this semester.

I told him I had been talking about graffiti artists in my class, and we had gone to several programs at City Lore on street art, including their current exhibit on subway graffiti of the 1970s. He hadn’t heard of City Lore so I wrote their address down on my card and told him to pay them a visit.

Then after class, I decided to go to Brighton Beach since it was my last free night in Brooklyn with a 7-day unlimited MetroCard. I went to an Uygur restaurant I had been meaning to visit for the past year. When I walked in I was clearly the only non-Uygur/Uzbek/Russian person in the place. (I am trying to protect confidentiality here, so I will leave out the identifying details for now.) But when I asked one young man in the restaurant if he was studying here, he said he was here in this country for exhibitions. “Of what?” I asked, imagining sports, actually. He said, “Of my painting.” It turns out he is a traditional artist from Uzbekistan who first started learning from his uncle and then getting training in school. He paints on wood, leather, and silk paper, and he showed me photos of his work on his cell phone. It is incredible work with a level of professionalism, especially the decorative paintings on wood, that I had not expected. His English wasn’t very good, so when I tried to explain my degree is in folklore (after unsuccessfully trying anthropology and ethnology, which I thought he might have been able to recognize the words for) he had to look on his phone translator app. He’ll be in a show next week so I’m going to go and see all his work for sale.

OK, so the first guy just happened to see me while he was delivering a pizza, taking pictures of graffiti on a rental truck that his friends had painted. It’s understandable, given that amazing good luck, that he would know I am interested in art – and more power to him for coming up to me and asking about my photography. But how did the second artist that night know? What signals do I give off that, like some kind of dog whistle even I don’t know I possess, people are still drawn to come up to me and tell me their life stories. I’ve noticed this ever since I was about 22. I know wherever I am people ask me for directions. And I know statistically that there are many more artists out there than meet the eye, so it should be no surprise that I run into some from time to time given that I am more likely to speak to strangers than many other people.

But still. New York remains a city of artists. Some come to follow their dreams. Some are criminalized.

I also just learned that if there were a 2% dedicated tax on art auctions they could double the budget of the National Endowment of the Arts in just two days in New York City.

On cynics and our educational system

16 Feb

All week I’ve been thinking of Oscar Wilde’s famous quotation, “a cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” During my youth, I never really understood this as I do now, but it seems particularly apt in light of recent debates and discussions about the value of a higher education degree in the humanities (which readers of this blog know is an issue of great interest to me).

Starting with President Obama’s comment about vocational school preparing students for a higher income than majoring in art history at a university, there were subsequent reports on NPR that argued that humanities majors do fine economically (especially as compared to non-college grads), and a Pew study demonstrated that a college degree is still the best predictor of higher income, regardless of major.  The Pew study in particular equated “value” with “usefulness” in the job market and the workplace.

“Value” of education cannot be measured by income level or limited to usefulness in the ability to earn a salary.  Once we’ve become that cynical, then we have lost sight of what education is really good for – the eradication of ignorance, our ability to improve the quality and sustainability of life for all beings, learning about who we are from history, and understanding ways of looking at the world that enable us to live and get along with others without killing them, among other things.  Sometimes it’s just about the ability to ask deeper questions about our existence, or to appreciate more the artistic and ethical dimension of our lives.

But the point is that as long as the discussion focuses on future income as the measure of the value of an education, then we are accepting the line of thinking and terms of the debate promoted by the Reagan administration, which is that justification can be reduced to lower cost to taxpayers and a higher monetary return for the individual. In short, greater profits.  This is what the capitalist system has transformed into, and not one President since then has challenged this concept.  Is the profit motive, either on campus or in the larger world, a relevant guiding principle for our educational system?

This thinking displays the utter cynicism of Reagan and his followers, because they know the price of an education (and the price of its rewards), but they haven’t a clue about what the value of education really is – or if they do suspect, they are afraid of the challenges that educational system provides to the world order of corporate power.  This is why the Governor of North Carolina, Pat McCrory, has argued that state aid for higher education should only go to those fields that produce graduates ready for jobs in the workforce.

President Obama’s remark about art history as a major is disappointing on a number of different levels.  As I posted on my Facebook page, there are three senses in which his comments are disturbing.  First, American higher education has been transformed into an industry that trains people to fill jobs and make profits, while the all-important qualities of ethics, conscience, questioning, imagination, innovation, and sustainability are seen as frills or luxuries for the very elite or privileged, but they don’t matter ultimately. Well, they do. The planet is at risk from the idea that profit generation has no consequences. This began with Reagan when he was Governor of California, taking on the University of California system, and four decades or so later, only the most elite of higher education students can have the opportunity to think about these issues and train to be leaders among the decision-making classes.

Second, maybe if more people in this current administration had studied the humanities, this administration wouldn’t show such a stunning lack of imagination in actually bringing about the progressive changes they promised.

And third, this increasingly common argument, which I’ve heard from liberals as well as conservatives, that college “may not be” for everybody, is disingenuous, especially in light of massive federal and state cuts to education over the past 30 years. It’s as if we’re saying, well, don’t feel there’s an injustice in the fact that your high school doesn’t prepare you to attend college (and study humanities), you can do even better with this consolation prize, and you’ll earn big money, too!  It’s so patronizing for anyone with an Ivy League graduate degree to tell high school kids they should be as satisfied with a trade when they haven’t had the real opportunity to get into fields where they become the creative leaders or, let’s face it, the CEOs or the policy-makers. If you don’t believe me, then ask yourself what would have happened if he had made this speech at a fancy private school.

Job-readiness and the profit motive will do nothing to prevent nuclear annihilation (from bombs or reactor disasters) or global warming that threatens to make Earth uninhabitable.   Studying scientific research and human values in the context of one another is of far more value in safeguarding our long-term future.  We study to grow rich at our peril.

Mandela

6 Dec

I can’t recall a time in my life when the world has collectively paused to remember the life of one person, nor can I remember anytime in my own life when I’ve been so moved at the death of a world leader. I’m not old enough to remember the major assassinations of our time, except I do remember the murder of the Salvadoran Jesuit priests at the Universidad Centroamericana, which was news if one followed events in Latin America, but the significance of the murders was generally underappreciated. But Mandela’s passing, even though it was long anticipated, has been one of those rare moments when the entire world seems to suspend breath and recognize the passing of one of the great figures of modern history. Charlie Rose just called him “perhaps the most admired man in the world,” and he is probably right.

I’ve been thinking about Mandela’s greatness as a leader and as a voice of conscience. I’ve been meaning to write about him for some time already, but now it is of course most appropriate. My own appreciation for him went up when I read John Carlin’s masterful biography disguised in part as a sports story, Playing the Enemy, which even more than the film emphasizes Mandela’s gift and genius for negotiation, strategy, and reconciliation. Part of Mandela’s great gift was the ability to shift from risking his life for the freedom of his people – in a way, more globalized, of all people – to embracing reconciliation and peaceful transition when peace was necessary. All this without compromise, or with a minimum of compromise. He embodied principle, conscience, collective action, and effectiveness is a way that few others have.

I’m particularly gratified when I see coverage of the fact that Reagan and Thatcher (the former being sanctified in American historical memory, despite everything we know about his actual record) were, as the cliche goes, on the wrong side of history, that they regarded the ANC as a terrorist organization and they opposed divestment, and that they come off now as dated, foolish, and yes, colonialist as they were even then when they were fooling and obfuscating their respective electorates.

But aside from the tremendous humanism of Mandela’s goals, the depth of his commitment, another valuable contribution (that will come out more in the histories yet to be written) is his strategic thinking. Although we as humans tend to see many things through an adversarial or warlike framework – or because we do – we can say he was one of the great tacticians of our time and all time. His leadership became the spearhead of a kind of revolution, a liberation.

In a wise remembrance, South African political science professor Richard Pithouse observes, “Mandela was also a man whose ethical choices transcended rather than mirrored those of his oppressors.” This is so much the crux of what made him different from other world leaders, and is perhaps the potential saving grace of individual activism.

Let me explain my position. I am generally one who believes in collective action as being more broadly and permanently effective. Though I know that “one person can make a difference” (and have seen it over and over not only in my life but in world politics and social justice), one of our tragic flaws as a species is to wait for, or expect, the one charismatic person to come along rather than recognizing that it will indeed take all of us working together to bring about social change and indeed effect our survival. For various reasons, this myth of the individual is promoted by our media – for example Rosa Parks gets the credit for the Montgomery bus boycott when in fact she was the most visible part of a larger movement – perhaps because promoting the strength of collective action is far more threatening, since it would be more effective if more people took up that banner. That said, we do have world leaders, we do have movement leaders, who make choices – policy decisions, strategic decisions, decisions about tone, humanism, and ethics – that have broader impact across the spectrum of political actors in any given situation.

As a leader of a movement, a very broad movement, Mandela made strong ethical choices (that he didn’t have to make), and imaginative choices (about strategy and reconciliation) that most people in similar situations do not make and historically have not made. And this is an individual thing. All of us are faced with hundreds of ethical choices about how we live our lives – and few of us have the fate of a movement or a people in our hands. The ethical choices we make affect mostly our lives directly, but indirectly are part of a larger body of tens of thousands of ethical decisions that end up statistically having an impact on the environment and the economy, and even on our foreign policy. What puts Mandela in that smallest of upper circles of prophetic leaders is that he made the more deliberate ethical choices even when he didn’t have to. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, John Lewis, and Bayard Rustin all come to mind in this same sense of ethical choice. Not just political choice and being on the side of justice, but doing so in a particularly steadfast ethical way. Leaving at the end of his first term, for example, is profound. (I remember the joy, the dancing in the streets, when Robert Mugabe was first elected. How differently that turned out.)

In the last day, I’ve come to realize that “compromise” has at least two meanings. One is the kind of negotiation, the way of giving up certain requirements in order to come to a consensus that enables people to progress in a more unified and less divisive manner: I’ll give up this if you give up that. There is at least the pretense of equality of power. The second meaning though is the sense of compromising one’s principles because the “office” (in the abstract) demands it, or those who hold power over you (like your employer) demand it. That is, compromising one’s ideals in the face of perceived greater power. The genius of Mandela is, in part, knowing the difference, knowing when the compromise over punishment and retribution will move the entire country, indeed the world, forward, but when not to compromise on principles like freedom and equality because doing so will move nothing forward and will sell out your own cause.

What we see over and over in the world these days – to a sickening degree – is that most people and most supposed leaders compromise their own ethical positions, their positions of conscience, because they think the position they now hold requires them to have a loyalty to a corporate entity (usually an amoral one), whether that’s a for-profit corporation or a government agency. I think I first noticed this personally in 1992 during Janet Reno’s confirmation hearing, when she testified that she was against the death penalty personally, but as Attorney General would support it because that was the official policy of the office. Now we see this everywhere. Morally, people somehow feel that accepted practice is that you adopt the morals and loyalties of the office you hold, not your own personal sense of conscience. There is no more conflicted figure in the U.S. in this regard than Janet Napolitano, who as Secretary of Homeland Security willingly carried out policies that deported more individuals, and broke up more families, than any other regime in American history, yet now as Chancellor of the University of California is expected to stand up for undocumented students or at least espouse a school policy that does not try to deport them all. Same person, completely conflicting morals determined by her professional office at the time (taking her current position policy at face value and assuming she is not working behind the scenes against the interests of her students whom she is charged to educate). The young Obama was a committed opponent of apartheid and an advocate for the community members whom he was working with, but as officeholder of commander-in-chief he is expected to carry out military and paramilitary policies that as a student activist he would have opposed. Same person – has he changed his personal beliefs, or does the role he find himself in circumscribe his ethical choices? That’s the question. He may be forced to compromise on some policies to get a bill passed with bipartisan support (although history is filled with examples of those who did not compromise and got their way nonetheless, like his predecessor in the office), but only he can choose whether to compromise on his ideals and principles because of how he thinks (or has been told, or threatened) he is expected to act in a given office at a given time. Protocol.

But very rarely we do have a leader – Mandela, and perhaps Pope Francis – who recognize that being a leader for the ages means tailoring the ethics of the office to a higher sense of social justice, rather than tailoring their personal ethics to the expectations of the role the way it has always been done. Continuity, especially in the wake of an oppressive or disastrous regime, is a pragmatic choice, not an ethical one. Mugabe was in a position to reshape his country and what the presidential chair would look like ethically in a new Zimbabwe. He failed. Mandela had a similar opportunity, and made much more strategically difficult, but ultimately morally prophetic and just, choices. And while one could argue that they had the rare situation of finding themselves at the helm of essentially new countries, every leader in truth has this opportunity to the extent he or she is willing to reshape this. In U.S. history, both Franklin Roosevelt (from the left) and Ronald Reagan (from the right) shaped the chair to fit their principles, not the other way around. Lyndon Johnson’s tragedy was that though he may have tried to do so domestically, he failed because he became ensnared in the dying ethics of colonialism and the Cold War mentality.

The challenge of a prophetic leadership, the kind that leads towards social justice and equity, is in reshaping the ethics of a seat of leadership to a higher sense of individual, even spiritual, ethics, within the larger framework of ethics not as circumscribed by the office and the power-holders, but by that of a larger ideal of justice and equity that in fact is collective while respecting the integrity and dignity of individual lives. This means exactly what Pithouse says Mandela accomplished, “transcending” rather than “mirroring” the ethical and moral choices of oppressors. This is also what the Pope is doing in rejecting the idea of living in wealthy quarters, in visiting prisons and the homeless around Rome.

Something is wrong with leaders when you know what they will say in advance because their office demands they say the expected thing that people in that role are allowed to say. When a leader says something that expands our imagination, something that adds to our way of thinking about what is possible and necessary to bring about a better world, something that provides an insight that goes beyond bromides, that enables hope as something real and powerful rather than a demand to keep waiting passively, that is leadership, rather than just filling a seat and wielding power – the power to keep things the way they already are – because someone has to.

I disagree with the conclusion in an otherwise excellent and insightful article by Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker blog, which ends, “It was Mandela’s good fortune that his moment inverted the demands commonly placed upon a politician’s shoulders. His country needed him to publicly and explicitly act on his firmest convictions, not bend them on the altar of expediency. Mandela emerged at that rare point in history where idealism and pragmatism were practically indistinguishable.” The problem is, this denies Mandela’s own agency and the choices he made, and could have made. We live in a time of mediocre men and women, leaders whose edge is ground down by the cynical and dulling impact of neoliberalism, when we assume that leaders can only act out of pragmatism. The leader who exhibits ideals and imagination is so rare, that even faced with one, we must find a more cynical explanation: it is necessary to look for a rationalization as Cobb does that it really was pragmatism after all that motivated even Mandela as well. No country needs its leaders to “bend [ideals] on the altar of expediency” – and indeed, the case can be made that the radical right (Reagan, Thatcher, G.W. Bush) chose not to do what was expedient either because they could make those choices and sacrifice nothing. Progressive movements around the world need to embrace idealism and support leaders with backbone, the ones who will choose principle over comfort and privilege. What is asymmetrical about this equation is that ideals and privilege are congruent choices on the right, so the forces demanding personal compromise are weak, but ideals require sacrifice among leaders on the left, and the personal rewards of compromise are so easy. Pragmatism becomes the easiest path.

Great teaching and the adjunct fallacy

10 Sep

I really didn’t have time to write anything today, but I just saw this article citing a new study that demonstrates college adjuncts and other non-tenure track faculty are more effective teachers than tenure-track professors, especially for students with weaker academic preparation. Let the misinterpretations of the data begin! Even from the title – “The Adjunct Advantage” – we can predict that the spin is going to be that adjuncts are a most cost-effective way to have better teaching in post-secondary education. But the causal attribution is all wrong, and that’s got to be cut off at the pass. Otherwise, cost-cutting colleges – and moreover, lawmakers looking for ways to justify cutting education budgets – are going to use this study as a rationale to link effective outcomes with job insecurity (not to mention union-busting).

The explanation is a simple case of occupational priorities determining effectiveness. Tenure-track professors, whether before or after tenure, are rewarded for research and publications, so their top priority is going to be succeeding in those areas. If they happen to be great teachers, it doesn’t hurt their portfolio, but their worth to the university – and their promotions – are going to be measured by their publications and research grants.

Non-tenure-track faculty are hired on temporary contracts and the primary measure of their effectiveness is teaching evaluation, followed by willingness to be a team player. I was non-tenure-track full-time faculty for five years, and my annual contract was contingent upon getting good evaluations from my students. So my top priority was going to be to make myself the best and most effective teacher I could. Finish an article for publication (and fall behind on my course prep and grading), or spend extra time helping a student understand the material better? Which one would be better for my job security? That’s an easy call.

If you tell people in Group B their continued employment depends upon good teacher evaluations, and you tell people in Group A their continued employment depends upon prestigious publications, books, and research grants, which group are going to become the “more effective” teachers? The fact that the former group are working with even less job security raises their stakes even more; teaching well becomes a matter of subsistence.

Where the real research needs to take place is how to turn the system of higher education into one that relies on positive reinforcement for good teaching and good research, since it is well-established that positive reinforcement is a more effective tool than the threat of negative reinforcement – and it makes for a better work and living environment for everyone. The idea that workers are more productive when living under the constant fear of termination is already a fallacy in itself, but it is especially untrue in the higher education industry, because the methods for active learning and experimentation there require the freedom to question, and the necessity to address shortcomings and failures without prejudice if students don’t get it perfect the first time.

I’m open to the idea of a two-track (not two-tiered) solution, if both tracks are well-compensated, have job security, and students are able to benefit equally from great teachers and great researchers. Why not let faculty decide what kinds of positions and job descriptions they would prefer, if the benefits and remuneration – and job security – were equal?

Color, grey, black and white: Notes from the 37th Montreal World Film Festival

6 Sep

I know that reading other people’s reviews of obscure art films may not be the most gripping reading, but I need to do justice to some of the films I saw at this year’s Montreal World Film Festival. I’ve been going roughly every other year since 1995 at least for part of the Festival – my record for most films viewed in one week is 19 – and this year I managed to attend for four days. To their credit, they show many non-commercial films from a wide range of countries, and lots of documentaries, and tickets now cost C$7. I have seen some of the most memorable films of my life there over the years, including Postmen in the Mountains, The May Lady, Children of the Pyre, The Way to the West, Love Letter, In the Navel of the Sea, Siberia Mon Amour, and others I still can’t find online references to, and others which are memorable in every way except the title. (I’ll update this later as I find more links.)

In any case, this year I saw eight films, of which four were particularly memorable, including three documentaries. Here are a few profiles of the most memorable films.

    Cidade Cinza (Grey City)

This breathtaking film from Brazil depicts the work of half a dozen street and graffiti artists in painting colorful murals around the city. Color is the operative word here. Their spraypainting utilizes bright, rainbow colors as a means of breathing life into an otherwise drab and stultifying megacity. At the same time, the film follows the work of a crew of city officials – one of them a former graffiti artists – as they roam the city painting over the murals with grey paint. They decide – or so they claim – not to paint over the artistic ones, but the film opens with the painting over of a massive mural and its restoration by the artists, with the blessing (literally!) of the city.

Cidade Cinze (Grey City) is one of the greatest depictions of the artistic process I have ever seen on film. The images of the artists at work is fluid and dynamic, interspersed with interviews and clips of their work elsewhere around the city, and around the world as they achieve greater recognition. Their struggle to inject color into the city is nothing less than the struggle to inject art (and life!) into a neoliberal economic system that demands utility and cost-effectiveness over the freedom of expression.

Why is grey the color of the new city, the new state, urban life as we have come to know it? The aerial shots of the rapidly built city that open the film could just as easily be Dhaka or any number of other megacities in which natural green has been replaced by the color of cement. (As an aside, the mayor of Kolkata decided to make Kolkata “the blue city” – her favorite color – and created a public works project to paint everything blue, including tree trunks, which were poisoned by the paints.) The larger aesthetic issue is why a top-down approach to color – and the designation of uniform colors – is the objective of the state. What is the state trying to achieve by driving color out of our lives? Lately there has been a response, through the vibrant street art of the hip-hop movement, and also in the rainbow symbolism of LGBTQ movements worldwide as well as the most recent struggle to protect parks in Istanbul from being turned into shopping malls.

The film also raises the question of aesthetic judgments and who gets to make them. Everyone is indeed a critic. The city over-painters make judgments on the spot about which murals are too artistic to be covered over and which ones are considered pollution. At the same time, a central question of our time is who owns the walls – whether private property or public space. I have long wondered why graffiti is considered offensive to the eyes and something to be covered, while more and more public space is turned over to advertising, whose only message is consumption. Yet there is never any state-sanctioned effort to paint over billboards or ads on buses (sometimes taking up the sides of entire buses).

But above all there is the pure delight of the artists themselves, the way they express feeling alive with a spray can in their hands. There is also the question of whether the practice of art is a worthwhile occupation, as clearly in our economy it is not seen as such. Again, the struggle of a global economic system of efficiency is to marginalize aesthetic expression as a hobby and to destroy opportunities to make a profession out of being creative, practicing the arts, and teaching them. All of these questions are raised in this profound film.

And yet I would be remiss if I did not also point out how extraordinarily beautiful this film is visually. The editing, the cinematography, and even the animation, make viewing this an exuberant experience. Documentaries about art can be visually enlivening, and this film does its subject justice. It is a work of visual art just like the murals it depicts. The filmmakers not only get inside the heads and hands of the creators, but treat our eyes as well. The camera never stops, the editing and montage work are brilliant. And the use of color, appropriately enough, serves as a weapon, and a challenge to all of us to live our lives and make even our ugliest surroundings beautiful.

    Jiseul

The greatest fiction film I saw at the festival this year was (ironically, given my previous description) in black-and-white, a Korean film called Jiseul. Its use of black and white spans all the way from purely white screens to purely black, and every shade and combination in between. Its amazing and stylized cinematography, while referencing the silver-light quality of Kurosawa especially, creates a new language within the constrained cultural palette of the black/white spectrum. That in itself makes the film a stunning display of technique, not to mention the composition and remarkably original mise-en-scène by director O Muel with unforgettable tableaux of villagers nestled within a cave, two soldiers conversing in a lengthy dialogue sequence while suspended upside-down, a smoky house-to-house search for suspects, and more.

The upside-town sequence is a metaphor for the film itself, as it turns commonly advanced assumptions of heroes and villains in the Korean War upside down. The story is based on episodes after the Jeju Island uprisings of 1948, when the U.S. military gave the command that every Korean living outside the Korean peninsula itself could be considered a communist sympathizer and shot on sight as a result of local uprisings against the Korean government, unless they came forward and registered. While according to the film the U.S. continues to deny its involvement, as many as thirty thousand Jeju islanders are now estimated to have been killed – two years before the start of the formal conflict – and two-thirds of the villages on that island permanently destroyed. The film depicts the struggle of about thirty villagers to escape the slaughter by hiding in caves for two months, and at the same time, shows the range of South Korean soldiers from those who sadistically supported a military approach to pacification and tortured those soldiers who wouldn’t follow along, to those who considered desertion and refused to kill civilians. The would-be deserters and alleged communist sympathizers emerge as the heroes of this film – now supported by a more open South Korean government – in ways that would have been inconceivable thirty years ago. This indicates there has been a re-examination of the Korean War, at least on the Southern side, over the past few years, while such a reconsideration has yet to take place in the U.S., even after all this time.

Apparently, I learned later, the actors portraying the military speak in standard Korean, while the local actors playing the villages speak in the Jeju dialect. The title represents the local dialect word for “potato,” the main subsistence of the refugees during that time and a central metaphor for the film. I also read that the local actors were non-professionals, but I had no idea. I can’t wait to see it again, because the broad cast of characters and intertwined episodes makes following what happens to each character complicated, whereas I’m sure on a second viewing, more of its storylines would become clearer. (Also the five section headings, which cry out for a better English translation – not to mention the burning paper inscriptions at the very end.) Overall, though, this is an incredible war film about refugees and survivors, and I hope it gets attention and added to many lists of great films about life during wartime.

    Bajarí


Also remarkable was a slice-of-life documentary about the Gypsy tradition of Flamenco dance and music in Barcelona, called Bajarí,. Focusing around two outstanding performers, a young woman visiting Spain from Mexico, and her 5-year-old prodigy nephew, the film captures great examples of Flamenco dance and the accompanying music. The director, Eva Vila, has framed compelling long takes of flamenco dance, concentrating on the feet, and other isolated body parts rather than try to capture the entire body. Daring composition and long sequences that depict the spirit of the dancers are hallmarks of this distinctively shot and ultimately thrilling film. And it’s not all dance and music, as wonderful as that is. One of the most compelling sequences concerns the purchase and design of a new pair of dance shoes, but I won’t say more.

Like many great works of art it raises as many questions as it answers. In this case, even with the background on flamenco it provides, there are so many issues the audience walks away wanting to know about, not least a little more background about the Gypsies of Barcelona, and how two of the greatest dancers ended up moving to Mexico. I can’t say what is flamenco necessarily, after watching this film, nor what its role is within the Gypsy community itself. But its vibrancy, traditionality, health, power, all that is celebrated throughout. My heart was racing during the entire screening.

One linguistic note. While I know in Eastern Europe the term “Gypsy” is shunned and replaced now with the term “Roma” or “Romany,” the Castilian word “gitano” seems to be used here mostly, and the subtitles still carry on that unfortunate tradition of not capitalizing (in English) the word “gypsy.” Why this should still be allowed to pass unchallenged remains perplexing. But I have chosen to use the English term “Gypsy” here because that is what is used in the film.

    My Way to Olympia

Because of my interest in the Olympics, I was one of only a few people at the screening of the film My Way to Olympia, which the director, Niko von Glasow, jokes at the end he wanted to call “Triumph of the Will, Part 2” but it would require a copyright battle with Hitler. Von Glasow is kind of a German Michael Moore, a documentarian who occupies center stage in his own film, right down to the baseball cap, but one difference is von Glasow was born with the birth defects characteristic of mothers who took thalidomide when they were pregnant. Despite having no interest in sports, he decides to make a film profiling 4 Paralympics individual athletes and one Paralympics team. He uses his own disability, and social skills (awkward or adept?) as a way of opening up a discussion about disability with these athletes and asking daring questions that would be taboo for anyone else.

In doing so, his difficult questions and editor’s ear for the significant quote fill this film with insight after insight, about the nature of sport, humanity (in its perseverance as well as cruelty), and even the idea of winning. “The biggest disabilities are invisible,” says one coach, “the psychological traits pushing [people] or holding them back.” When von Glasow protests that he hates sports, Greg Polychronidis, a brilliant Greek bocce player with muscular dystrophy counters, “Sports are one of the best things in the world we live in. Many more things are worse.” Von Glasow: “But the Paralympics are expensive.” The bocce player responds, “But much more is spent on weapons.” Game, set, match.

Von Glasow asks Polychronidis if he fears his coming further incapacitation and death. He doesn’t, but his full-time caretaker admits to being frightened himself about what will happen to his friend. With echoes of the Lou Gehrig Story, Polychronidis – mostly paralyzed from the neck down and using a motorized wheelchair, he pitches the balls by means of a head set with a small extension arm – continues, “You may be the poorest, but if you find what you live for you will be happier than everyone. I consider myself lucky being one of the best in the world in something.” This is a film about winners and the importance of winning, in all of its multiple dimensions, about learning to stretch the abilities you do have to the extent you can achieve precision, speed, teamwork, a different kind of beauty.

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