Sunday, February 28, 2016

Toronto DIY Filmmakers

A conference presentation for the University of Toronto Cinema Studies Graduate Conference, Sightlines, which took place on February 27th, 2016 at Innis Town Hall. - D.D.
Don Owen and the Birth of Toronto Cinema
It’s an unfortunate coincidence that Don Owen passed away, due to health reasons, earlier on in the week, but in honor of him and his important work, I want to dedicate this talk to his memory. Owen is one of the founding fathers of Toronto, English-language Canadian cinema, especially for his film Nobody Waved Good-bye (1964).

Steve Gravestock, in his book, Don Owen: Notes on a Filmmaker and his Culture, describes how in the early sixties, filmmaking in Toronto was non-existent (there were no production companies), and with the city’s conservative and religious values, it was resistant to it. The National Film Board in Montreal, which started in 1939, was the heart of the industry, and Owen had to go there, to its Unit B Candid Eye program, to get the training and resources to start making films. But he would return to Toronto to make a couple of short documentaries, Runner and Toronto Jazz, before making Nobody Waved Good-bye, which, similar to Gilles Carle’s La vie heureuse de Léopold Z (1965), started out as a documentary (on juvenile delinquency) before becoming a narrative feature.

Nobody Waved Good-bye is the story of a rebellious teenager (Peter Kastner), who drops out of school and moves out of his parents house, gets a job working at a parking lot, before trying to leave the city in a stolen car with his girlfriend. Its accomplishments are four-fold: There’s still something about Peter’s plight that resonates today – his charm, indecision and frustration in face of a restrictive society still rings true –, Owen’s guerilla filmmaking, open to improvisation and chance, breathes life into the film and it still feels modern today (Matt Johnson even cites it as an influence); its depiction of the city is valuable as a historical document; and it would establish the groundwork for a Toronto-based film culture and the framework for English Canadian cinema in general.

It’s this depiction of Toronto as a modern urban center, in contrast to a vast uninhabited landscape, and the contribution to building of a major and alternative industry, which makes Owen such an important figure today. The film would also directly address the relationship between Canadian culture and the dominant mainstream one of the United States – Peter makes fun of the Hollywood epic Cleopatra –, which also points to some reasons for its certain marginal status in Canadian consciousness.

The history of Canadian cinema is full of one-off films, poor reception, lack of funding and limited audiences, which is still a sad reality today. Owen made his film, which was modestly positively received, but after his brief stint at the NFB, his career never really took off – the subjects of his later documentaries would have many parallels with his own life, as he would usually focus on outsider artists, who live a bohemian-style life, at the margins of society.
How to Support an Independent Toronto Cinema?
There’s not enough mainstream images that bring together the country and the cultural memory of film-goers is not documented sufficiently. How to remedy this? Watch more Canadian films, support them, and perhaps write about them? So the following is my attempt to do just this.

The Toronto DIY Filmmakers should best be seen, not necessarily as a group or movement, but a fortuitous coincidence of several young people becoming filmmakers, who are based out of Toronto, who started making films, shorts, animation, experimental and feature films, around the same time, since 2009-2010.

So the Toronto DIY Filmmakers are these young filmmakers from the Greater Toronto Area region who are making more independent and artisanal films. The films are mostly shot digitally and most of the filmmakers are from one of Toronto’s film production schools, such as Ryerson and York University. The young filmmakers offer a new perspective, from their vantage point of millennials, on the Canadian experience, which typically are more raw and melancholic, vital and full of life than some of the nation’s more ‘official’ media output. And to actually see them, one must be aware of these one-off or short-run screenings, as their theatrical experiences are either micro- or personal screenings, typically with a small to medium attendance.

The origins of the Toronto DIY Filmmakers can be traced back to 2009 with Kazik Radwanski’s completion of his MDF Trilogy: Assault, Princess Margaret Blvd, and Out In That Deep Blue Sea, Simon Ennis’ You Might as Well Live and Matt Johnson’s Nirvana: The Band.  

The Toronto DIY Filmmakers include Kazik Radwanski, Igor Drljača, Matt Johnson, Andrew Cividino, Isiah Medina, Antoine Bourges, Luo Li, Rebeccah Love, Fantavious Fritz, Kevan Funk, Calvin Thomas and Yonah and Lev Lewis, Simon Ennis, Nadia Litz, Daniel Cockburn, Sofia Bohdanowicz, Nicolás Pereda, Pavan Moondi and Brian Robertson, Steven McCarthy, Stephen Dunn, A.J. Bond, Albert Shin, Blake Williams, Mitch Ariel, Trevor Juras, Leslie Supnet, Sofia Banzhaf, Sol Friedman and Eva Kolcze.

It’s a diverse group and there are sub-categories that could be drawn within it: The Toronto-born DIY filmmakers, First/Second generation filmmakers, women filmmakers, queer filmmakers, experimental and short-film filmmakers. So even within this already small filmmaking movement, which in itself is against the cultural mainstream, there’s distinct and minority voices being expressed. The ethno-cultural conflicts in these Toronto films, which deal with local, national and transnational issues, reflect the cultural, racial, and linguistic diversity of the city. This urban imaginary shows the effects of globalization in Toronto, and through it the films are able to subvert the iconic and stereotypical representations of the city. So these films participate in challenging the Anglo-Canadian hegemonic identity, and taken all-together they present a larger, more complex reflection of contemporary Canadian realities.

The Toronto International Film Festival in September, which showcases many of these works, is important for getting them international exposure and positive receptions, and its headquarters, the TIFF Bell Lightbox, which opened in September 12th, 2010, is one site of programming and socializing for some of them, and so is the Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival and the Canadian Screen Awards.

But what’s important is the creation of a grass-roots film culture. In regards to this, the small screenings of these Toronto DIY films, which have only grown over the years, are really important, especially around the MDFF screening series, which takes place either at Double Double Land, Camera Bar, CineCycle and The Royal. There is the creation of a community and public sphere at these events as, through the films, there’s a meditation on what it’s like living in Toronto, which continues into a post-screening discourse on the subject between film-goers, critics, filmmakers and programmers. Some issues that are discussed include living in the city and overcoming social and economic problems, as well as the filmmaking process and styles of filmmaking. There’s also an aura around these small-scale events: One needs to be there, and go out to these screenings to actually see the films, since the films are not available any other way (only rarely do they get released on DVD, more likely some form of video-on-demand, or on websites like Mubi and Fandor).

As a whole, these films show a stalled Toronto, that of being depressed, angered and saddened towards the state of the country and the world. It’s a world of young adults trying to find themselves and integrating in society and being faced by many challenges, or that of parents trying to do their best, even though they don’t know what’s right or are just plain wrong. This is the Toronto of political scandal and corruption, such as the Rob Ford debacle, and Canada of Stephen Harper’s conservative government, which participated in un-regulating the market to the detriment of natural resources and the decline of the overall quality of life, as well as Bill C-51 which pushed back against immigration.

An important aspect of this group is youth, the average age of the filmmakers range from the early twenties to the early thirties, which means that they are more in touch with growing up in the 21st century urban Toronto, the transition to adulthood and a familiarity with the young-adult geography of the city. The films reflect this dynamism. As well, since they are so young and new in their careers, it means that the majority of them have only completed a few short-films and perhaps one or more full-length features.
Some parameters are necessary to draw the limits surrounding this movement: Their dominantly narrative films, by Toronto filmmakers, about Toronto residents, set in Toronto. The young filmmakers offer a youthful, fresh perspective on growing up in the city – childhood and schools are an important feature of them (e.g. Amy George, Green Crayons, The Dirties) and so is being a young adult (e.g. Everyday is like Sunday, Diamond Tongues, Tower, Drawing Duncan Palmer) – and they offer a unique look on specific parts of Toronto’s urbanism and geography. As well, they have to be DIY, therefore, it excludes major productions and films with major funding: these DIY filmmakers use non-professional, non-ACTRA actors and technicians, and they don’t work within the industry or with its unions.

The filmmakers chisel away on their films on their own time and with their own money, so they end up being more personal for this reason.

The films attempt to reflect their creator’s own vision of some kind of personal experience that takes place in and around Toronto. For example, Isiah Medina’s For May and December is about how he had to move out of his apartment, Radwanski’s How Heavy This Hammer is about family dynamics focused on a father, Cividino with Sleeping Giant is referencing his own childhood summers in the cottage country, and Luo Li’s I Went to the Zoo the Other Day documents a trip to the Toronto Zoo.

The films use metaphors as narrative devices to fictionalize the problem that the young filmmakers are faced with in Toronto: Nirvana: The Band is about these young musicians attempting to book a concert at the Rivoli, which stands in for the filmmakers trying to achieve recognition in an unwelcoming creative industry; and so is Tower which is about an animator whose struggling away at his depressive personal project. Health issues are also dealt with in these films: In The Oxbow Cure a woman goes off to an isolated cottage to deal with her recovery and grieving process, and a similar story takes place in Trevor Juras’ The Interior. The films of Rebeccah Love (Abacus, My Love, Drawing Duncan Palmer) also deal with the emotional toll of family death and its bereavement.
Many of these filmmakers did their undergrad and/or Masters in film production, at one of Toronto’s film production schools, most notably Ryerson and York University. Because of this, their technical medium is that of a new digital cinematography, which, unique to this movement in Canadian film history, parallels the total industry shift of film stock to digital.

The Toronto DIY Filmmakers’ focus on an urban imagery – the streets, neighborhoods, homes and apartments in their vicinity –  which is one of the defining features of these digital productions. This is in contrast to the richness of celluloid, especially through how its photo-chemical material could capture the visual richness of the pastoral beauty of rural landscapes, which is that of an older realist tradition in Canadian cinema – a quality that owes more to the landscape painting tradition of the Group of Seven.

A unique perspective on Toronto is offered throughout these films. For example, Amy George is set past the Don Valley in the east-side, The Waiting Room in low-cost housing projects in the city’s outskirts, How Heavy This Hammer around Bloor and Gladstone, Drawing Duncan Palmer around St. Clair Avenue, Bohdanowicz’s Dundas Street on the street of its title, Nirvana: The Band around Queen and Spadina, and Diamond Tongues around the gentrifying Ossington Street.

These films are also in opposition to the dominant, state-sponsored English-language television and film production in Toronto and Canada, whose films are perhaps a little bloated, test-marketed for demographics, and made to reflect a somewhat optimistic nationalist discourse. They are also made by an older generation who are somewhat out-of-touch with the interests and sensibilities of the youth.

These smaller Toronto DIY films, on the other hand, are not made with what might seem like a ludicrous amount of taxpayer dollars. These are smaller productions, made in small groups, mostly of friends and acquaintances, as they do not rely on the salaried labor of hundreds of employees.
Canadian Film History
The Toronto DIY Filmmakers have also been labeled the ‘Toronto New New Wave’ or as the Northern neighbors to the New York DIY Filmmakers. These two labels understand it in relation to Canadian film history, and the Toronto New Wave of the eighties in particular, as well as to the independent spirit of 21st century American independent cinema.

Some brief context on the major developments in English-Canadian cinema: There’s the creation of the NFB, the Capital Cost Allowance which led to the tax-shelter films in the seventies, and then the Toronto New Wave, which, more major figures aside, include Ron Mann, Peter Mettler, Bruce LaBruce, and Patricia Rozema.

I want to posit the Toronto DIY Filmmakers as an extension of these previous developments.

The films reflect a knowledge of Canadian film history and build upon it: Radwanski’s realist cinema recalls Allan King’s documentaries (Warrendale, A Married Couple) and the actress Kate Ashley, from How Heavy This Hammer, was in Bruce LaBruce’s No Skin Off My Ass (1991) and Super 8½ (1994). Matt Johnson mentions that Don Owen’s guerilla style filmmaking was a major influence for him, and one can also compare his work to that of Paul Gross’ acting and directing career. The surrealist qualities of Diamond Tongues (the boil-water advisory sub-plot) recalls Don McKellar’s Last Night (1998), and Nadia Litz’s Hotel Congress (2014) recalls the lovers on the run story in Bruce McDonald’s Highway 61 (1991). Rebeccah Love’s Abacus, My Love (2014) has similarities with some of Jean-Marc Vallée’s theatrical stylistics. And Blake Williams’ work brings to mind Michael Snow’s structural films.
Film Magazines
The magazine Cahiers du Cinéma had a feature, New York: La Génération "Do It Yourself", in September 2011 (N.670), where they interview a range of up-and-coming independent New York filmmakers (Bronstein, Safdies, Perry) and ask them questions regarding filming, their motivation to create, and what they think about the city.

The filmmaking issues brought up parallels many similar developments that were occurring in Toronto, and which the Toronto DIY Filmmakers engage with, and so it provide a comparative framework to better analyze and understand what’s going on in Toronto.

As well, there’s an influence of American independent cinema in general, like that of filmmakers such as Joe Swanberg and Matt Porterfield, and its historical tradition which goes back to John Cassavetes. The Toronto DIY Filmmakers have to hustle to make these small-scale films, and there is a lot of work that goes into getting funding to make the films, communal work to get them made, and promotional work to get people to see them. 

The two Toronto DIY films that are particularly under this Bronstein-Safdie influence are Tower and Amy George. Just like the protagonist from the New York films, these two films have protagonists that wander around their respective neighborhoods trying to reach out to others, to have meaningful connections, but instead, their desires always seem to get thwarted.

As well, the Québécois magazine, 24 Images, which proposed a similar conceptual framework in their discussion of a ‘New Québécois Generation’ of filmmakers.

From this group, Denis Côté is important as a major influence on the Toronto DIY Filmmakers. Not only does he propose a model for how to be a major filmmaker on the festival circuit, rotating between short-films and features, more commercial films to the experimental; He is also friends/acquaintances with many of the Toronto DIY Filmmakers, offering constructive feedback and support for many of their films.

Though in Toronto, there are many print and digital publications that support a domestic independent cinema, it’s usually tied to ‘film reviewing’, publicizing an event going on, in the upcoming weeks. But the major support for these filmmakers comes from the Toronto-based film magazine, Cinema Scope, which brings together serious film criticism and programming, and as some of they’re contributors are also programmers, this kind of attention can greatly benefit the filmmakers, getting them programmed at internationally recognized film festivals, which in terms of Canadian funding, makes them eligible for more monetary grants.
The End, or, What’s Next?

“Talk to us about the horrors of the world or the powers of life, of death, of love or our times, the beauty of a sky or the realities of the work place, of whatever you want to speak about, but the urgent thing is, for it to be art, there needs to be thought, politics, the circulation of joyous affects, which disinhibits, liberates.” – Jean-Philippe Tessé

It’s not just the cliché: that culture will make us better. But instead, with the growth of urban expansion, rise of population, there’s something vital about what these filmmakers are doing in capturing a distinct Toronto experience and putting it out there in the collective imagination and memory. Their breathing life, into what sometimes seems like a impenetrable city, creating a community where people can come together, be less alienated, and show and talk about their experiences and work in a positive and constructive sphere.

Nobody’s asking these filmmakers to make their work, and they’re not always encouraged or rewarded to do so. But it’s this agency and urgency, that they have to make it, which makes their work so compelling. Cinema is an expensive medium and its distribution is now harder to navigate than ever. These Toronto DIY Filmmakers are doing something important. There’s a leap into the abyss, not knowing what they’re going to make or how, that they’re creating something new, which pushes towards a common good, that of sharing the same world. These stories breathe life into the city.

No Toronto resident would pick the CN Tower, which is supposed be its official symbol, as a defining aspect of how they experience and see the city, so instead the city’s residents find their own communities and places that they identify more strongly with. These Toronto DIY films capture, and contribute, to creating an intimate space and public sphere within the city. They help understand Toronto’s urban and international realities and how to define the contemporary Canadian identity.

To conclude: What can be done to either improve the films or help them get distribution and more attention?

Hopefully you can support them by going to see some of their newest films when they come out. In the upcoming months, hopefully, How Heavy This Hammer, The Waiting Room, 88:88, Operation Avalanche, and Sleeping Giant will get a theatrical exhibition, and, hopefully, short films like Lewis and Drawing Duncan Palmer get a larger premiere. The MDFF events are great public sphere screenings and social events. And there are many other films in production, whose titles are: Sundowners, Nirvana: The Band (Part. 2), Dim the Fluorescents, Props Girl, Spice it Up, Sublet, and The People Garden.
The future of Toronto and Canadian cinema is in their hands.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Film Conference: Sightlines


The University of Toronto Cinema Studies Graduate Conference, Sightlines, will begin Friday, February 26th and go on to Saturday, February 27th in Room 222 at Innis College . On Friday at 4PM the keynote Masha Salazkina will be speaking on an alternative history of cinematic contact zones, and then the day of panels starts at 10AM on Saturday.


For more information check out the Facebook event :

Friday, February 5, 2016

Bruno Latour’s Artistic Practices: Writing, Products and Influence

As an influential public intellectual Bruno Latour has held prominent teaching positions throughout his career – he is currently at the Paris Institute of Political Studies –, has published over a dozen books since the late seventies – including Laboratory Life (1979), Science in Action (1987), We Have Never Been Modern (1991), Reassembling the Social (2005) and An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence (2013) –, and has conceptualized some important concepts in the social sciences, most notably Actor-Network Theory (ANT), in conjunction with John Law and Michel Callon. In recent years, he has also served as the curator for successful art exhibitions.
The primary research question for this paper is how does the French sociologist Latour and his theories put pressure on cinema and cinema studies? This question can be interpreted a few different ways. What relationship does Latour have with cinema, in terms of the directors that he has written about and has expressed an affinity towards? Has he been an influence on any specific directors in terms of his mentorship as a professor? Has he himself made any films, or acted in any? Does Latour’s cultural writing in general offer an idea of the aesthetic that he would value in terms of the cinematic? What about his own artistic and cultural practices? Do they have any cinema-related value? And finally, does ANT offer a useful concept for analyzing films?
This paper will try to answer those questions by discussing how Latour has intersected with cinema throughout his career. For example, he developed personal connections with some filmmakers (Paravel and Green) and his theories may have had a potential influence on them or vice versa. Latour himself has made a film, The Tarde Durkheim Debate (1903/2008), or at least conceptualized it and acted in it. Latour’s writing, curation and creation (for example, of Paris: Invisible City) has provided a model for his aesthetic theory as metaphors for his social theory. Furthermore, ANT offers an interesting perspective to the analyses of films, most notably the documentary.

Véréna Paravel and Eugène Green
In recent years, Véréna Paravel, a PhD in Anthropology and one of Latour’s former students at the École Nationale Supérieure des Mines, with Lucien Castaing-Taylor, the director of the Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) at Harvard University, made an experimental documentary on a fishing ship, Leviathan (2012). This was the most direct connection between Latour and cinema and film studies. Scott MacDonald in American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary wrote, “Leviathan is surprising – its immersion of its audience within the audio-visual surround... feels not only overwhelming, but quite new in the annals of modern theatrical cinema.” The film would also receive the cover of Cinema Scope magazine and numerous conferences and lectures on it at Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) and Visual Evidence. It marked something new and exciting for cinema.
This immersive documentary on a fishing ship in New Bedford, Massachusetts stands out for being the cutting edge of the radical emerging style of the SEL movement and its content and form display certain tenets of ANT.  MacDonald wrote, “these films exemplify the commitment of the SEL to a sense of culture as continuous transformation, interpenetration, and imbrication.” Latour’s theory of a sociology of associations, of circulation and movements, the animating of non-human actors, like marine life or a fishing ship, found in Leviathan is a compelling illustration.
Paravel even, in an interesting anecdote on the French radio-show Hors-champs, spoke to Laure Adler about a unique Skype conversation that she had with Latour. During it he gave her a tour of his apartment room through his computer, as an illustration of some of his ideas. One could even detect certain parallels between this gesture and that of Leviathan’s with its digital cameras that are always in motion and how the film evokes the fascination of the sensory world.
Another example of Latour publicly supporting a filmmaker was in January 2010 at the Centre Pompidou where Latour gave a series of conferences titled Selon/Salon Bruno Latour. There Latour met with other philosophers and artists to discuss eloquence and demonstration and how they come together through articulation and composition. In the description of the series, Latour highlights the oratory arts and how they allow for movement and a liberating potential. The arts are a form of articulation and they relate to knowledge and science. Latour wrote, “Each intellectual discipline learns how to articulate the world in its unique method, to multiply its knowledge, to differentiate itself from other disciplines, and, to facilitate its expressions and representations.” This articulation leads to a need for composition and to understand how to group its varying elements. The archaeologies of these conferences on the social sciences, philosophy and the arts share a more subjective empiricism. Among the conferences the early Einstein-Bergson debate was recreated; Latour, Donna Haraway and Isabelle Stengers spoke on the potential of cyborgs; and surprisingly the filmmaker Eugène Green discussed the Baroque and L'âge de l'éloquence
 Latour in his introduction spoke about how Eugène Green inspires him. The focus of the conference is on the eloquence of Green’s dialogue most notably in his theater work, but also in his novels and films. Green’s method, he claims, has its roots in the Baroque period, between the Renaissance and an emerging Rational Age, at the intersection of science and religion. Latour wrote,

Through his Theatre of Sapience, founded in 1977, the metteur en scène Eugène Green already was searching to revive an art of the baroque theater through utilizing his declaratory means and proper visuals: pronunciation, accentuation, rhythm, frontal acting, candle lighting, and gestures: Everything was codified by very specific rules. Today as a director and writer, Eugène Green develops in his books and in his films, with the most recent one being La Religieuse portugaise (2009), a new reflection on eloquence and the incarnation of the parole. How to re-find parole by a return to the artifice of the elocution, framing and eloquence?

How to bring together rhetoric and demonstration, Latour asks? These two concepts, which are major preoccupations for Latour, are elaborated by Green through the importance of dialogue and cinematography in his work. This interest in language parallels that of Latour’s in his emphasis on descriptive language for ANT studies. One of the topics that Green brings up comes from his 2009 book Poétique du cinématographe. In it he distinguishes between ‘bougants’ (‘move-ies’) and ‘Cinématographe’. This division into two categories parallels that of Latour’s division between a sociology of the social and that of a sociology of associations. For Green ‘bougants’ represent the commercial, non-artistic movies and the ‘cinématographe’ its more artistic and spiritual potential. Green elaborates in regards to how he films objects, people, geography and architecture which, he posits, allows for their material self to truly emerge. This parallels some of Latour’s concepts of how non-human objects can also have agency.

The Tarde Durkheim Debate
Another example of how Latour intersects with cinema is his role in the recreation of the important social theory debate between Garbriel Tarde and Emile Durkheim. This reenactment of the 1903 debate has Latour in the role of Gabriel Tarde, Bruno Karsenti as Emile Durkheim and Dominique Reynié as the Dean. It was filmed in Paris in 2007 in a conference room, filled with an audience, with its vintage stage by Frédérique Ait-Touatti, research by Eduardo Vargas and recording by Martin Pavlov.
The film illustrates the importance of their theories for Latour and a potential interest in the medium. Émile Durkheim, one of the founders of a scientific sociology, aimed at defining generalizable social facts like, for example, through statistics the general suicide rates in a particular Catholic community. Gabriel Tarde, on the other hand, argued for an emphasis on the microanalysis of actors and networks as, “every thing is a society and that all things are societies.” Latour prefers Tarde’s theory of associations and through this recreation aims to recall and call into question one of the problems with the social sciences.
It is an interesting film as the actors are not necessarily aiming for physical or oratory verisimilitude, and the debate itself has been reconstituted (the original whole is no longer available), but what stands out are the competitive ideologies of the participants, the rationale behind their ideas, and the confrontation between the hardened ‘scientific’ reason and a more abstract ‘subjective’ empiricism. The difference is that of a broad understanding of how society functions through generalizable facts, against that of an attempt to find the truth-value of a situation by a close analysis of the actors within a particular site. Through Latour’s identification with Tarde he is aligning himself with an undervalued tradition in the social sciences. The underlying gesture is to not pass over this monumental event, but to better listen to Tarde as his ideas are revelatory and effective ways to analyze society.
This gesture for a philosopher to recreate an important theoretical work has a precursor with Michel Foucault who participated in the recreation of the facsimile document of Moi, Pierre Rivière, ayant égorgé ma mère, ma sœur et mon frère (1976) by René Allio. Where Latour’s writing on the Tarde-Durkheim debate can appear to be too historical (why is this relevant today?), through its current re-creation the historical event is brought to life and is given new relevance. The debate also demonstrates Latour’s eloquence, as per his discussion with Green, and turns Latour into a cinematic screen persona. With his recognizable long face and stern expression, big black glasses, sharp suit and tie; he is giving his body to cinema as a visual expression for his ideas. The Tarde Durkheim Debate (1903/2008) is a fitting cinematic memorial to Latour’s importance.

Latour’s Art Writing and Paris: Invisible City
Some of Latour’s art and cultural writing offers interesting ways to bring his ideas to cinema. In Latour’s essay, Some Experiments in Art and Politics he discusses Tomas Saraceno’s Galaxies Forming along Filaments, Like Droplets along the strands of a Spider’s Web (2008) which he sees as a metaphor for social theory. The work, which was on display at the 2009 Venice Biennale, creates through organized wires an infrastructure similar to how Latour conceptualizes ‘networks’. Latour wrote,

What Saraceno’s work of art and engineering reveals is that multiplying the connections and assembling them closely enough will shift slowly from a network (which you can see through) to a sphere (difficult to see through). Beautifully simple and terribly efficient… Namely of explicating the material and artificial conditions for existence.

For Latour, this artwork offers a great amount of freedom for understanding connections as a thought experiment. Latour further elaborates on his artistic sensibility in the exhibition catalog essay From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik, or How to Make Things Public, where he addresses the need to think of the political beyond necessarily human and temporal categories to look at people in relation to objects to create a cohabitation between the two. There are a plethora of artworks, photography and installations from this Making Things Public exhibition at the ZKM Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe that attempt to illustrate this aesthetic. 
 Another good example of Latour’s engagement with artistic practices is his digital media online project, Paris: Invisible City, which is described as a ‘Sociological Web Opera’. It was first launched in 2004 as part of the Airs de Paris exhibition at the Centre Pompidou. In Reassembling the Social Latour wrote, “This somewhat austere book can be read in parallel with the much lighter… Paris ville invisible, which tries to cover much of the same ground through a succession of photographic essays.” There are four stages to this tour: Traversing, Proportioning, Distribution and Allowing. It begins at a department store on its rooftop panorama of Paris. Through this limited view Latour theorizes that there cannot be only one Paris (e.g. a bird’s eye view of the city, does not do justice to its local specificities or how it’s actually operated) but through many isolated representations of it, there can be a better understanding of it as a multiple, invisible (Latour’s word, referencing Italo Calvino) and virtual city.
Anne Friedberg’s conception of the virtual window is useful in relation Latour’s Paris: Invisible City. Friedberg description of the screen is that of both a surface and a frame. The screen becomes a reflective plane onto which an image is cast and the frame limits its view. This idea relates Paris: Invisible City towards the cinematic as, building upon Henri Bergson and Gilles Deleuze, Friedberg argues that computer screens in general have replaced previous incarnations of screens, from the architectural window to the cinema screen, and their specificity is the virtual quality of their representational images. Friedberg wrote,

The term ‘virtual’ serves to distinguish between any representation or appearance (whether optically, technologically, or artisanally produced) that appears “functionally or effectively but not formally’ of the same materiality as what it represents… Virtual images have a materiality and a reality but of a different kind, a second-order materiality, liminally immaterial.

The world that Latour recreated with Paris: Invisible City depends on the computer screen in a novel way, which reflects Friedberg’s conception of the virtual screen, as it finds new ways to describe a society and in its own way tell a story.

ANT and Film Analysis
ANT as a model to analyze films has its benefits and drawbacks. Where it is probably correct to assume that Paravel had been influenced by Latour’s conception of ANT it is more difficult to broadly use it as a tool to analyze documentaries. Though one possibility would be to look at certain documentaries and then make a general taxonomy of how they animate some of ANT’s major tenets. But this can be limiting as well as in then how to interpret these scenes and their meaning? There are a few documentaries such as Silvered Water, Syrian Self-Portrait (2014), The Iron Ministry (2014) and 88:88 (2015) which are worth exploring as case studies for ANT’s usefulness for film analysis and to illustrate its potential.
Wiam Simav Bedirxan and Ossama Mohammed’s Silvered Water, Syrian Self-Portrait is a documentary on the atrocities of the Syrian civil war. It is a hybrid film made from the directors’ personal footage and found footage from the Internet of the atrocities plaguing Syria. The military regime that rules the country does not allow for filming (if caught filming the person is typically killed) and the violence of Silvered Water’s imagery is typically is not reproduced in Western reporting on Syria. In the documentary there is a scene of the ruins of an old building where a broken outdoor faucet is dripping. It is a lengthy scene as Bedirxan decides to focus on this one mundane activity. This broken faucet can take on what ANT describes as the agency of a non-human actor. ANT wants to distribute agency as broadly as possible. The social and historical trajectories of the country with its recent military violence take the specific form of this faucet as an actor in this scene. Even though the city is being destroyed there is still this micro-activity occurring. But the problematic aspect of focusing on this scene, solely to compare it to ANT, would be to take away from the overall project of the film with its message of urgency about the violence of the Syrian military on civilians and the destruction of Homs.  
 Another example is Isiah Medina’s experimental documentary 88:88. Through its portrait of a working class neighborhood in Winnipeg, Medina captures these interactions between nature, people, and community in a striking and unique way. If ANT posits that everyone and everything is profoundly relational then this experimental form of filming and editing can be seen as heightening the performative nature of these interactions and the networks connecting them. ANT presumes that a person’s identity is not prefigured by the moment of analysis (or filming) so in 88:88 brief shots of figures and lack of psychology have condensed the actants in enacting their relationships. These parallels offer some insight but perhaps a more helpful reference in understanding Medina’s film would be to compare it with works that it is most likely directly citing, such as Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme (2010) and Adieu au langage (2014) or other diary and structural films.
The same would apply to J.P. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry. Similar to the SEL Leviathan, The Iron Ministry is a condensed trip through the major Chinese rail-road system. It offers a fascinating glimpse to its busy activity, myriad of passengers and interviews. In one scene the camera is recording a young child criticizing American ideology late at night on the train. This scene recalls Latour’s focus on description without interpretation. But then what? The fact that parallels can be drawn between ANT and certain filming techniques used in specific documentaries does not confirm that it is necessarily a useful tool for the analysis of film. More research on the subject is still necessary.

ANT, Documentary and Media
There has also been scholarship on ANT and its relation to media and documentary which gives a better understanding of how other scholars have imagined this relationship. Here are two examples of scholarship on ANT’s relation to media and documentary: Ilana Gershon and Joshua Malitsky’s essay Actor-Network theory and documentary studies which discuss how science studies and ANT can inform documentary scholarship; and Nick Couldry’s Actor Network Theory and Media: Do They Connect And On What Terms? which elaborates on ANT’s relation to media in general. These two essays offer interesting methodologies on the subject.
Gershon and Malitsky’s essay is perhaps the better of the two to bring ANT to the analysis of documentary and its para-textual objects. Instead of asking how the film animates certain ANT tenets they attempt to use ANT to discuss the larger narratives surrounding the films, the films’ possible truth claims, and the broader social response to them. Gershon and Malitsky are reacting to the post-modernist critiques of ‘claiming the real’ and its recognition that truths are socially constructed. Instead they are claiming a similarity between ANT’s distrust of dichotomies in scientific practice to that of how documentaries construct truths. For this they propose to study the extra-textual information around the film as a method to interrogate its own truth claims.
Gershon and Malitsky, cite John Law, who “delineates how ANT is fundamentally a theory of relationality, the analytical task of figuring how these relationships condense in various people and objects.” ANT allows for techniques to reveal how truths are socially constructed and how interactions are transformed into representations. Gershon and Malitsky propose four conceptual consequences in bringing ANT to documentary: everyone and everything contributes to how interactions take place; not all actants are the same; ANT insists on the performative nature of relations and their forms; and actants are all network effects. This would lead to,

The ANT perspective makes the circulation of putative truth a question of how different actants contribute to shaping a network through specific interactions. What ANT scholars provide are techniques for sidestepping the ontological question of truth entirely and focusing instead on truth-value. In other words, what the ANT perspective offers are techniques for understanding how representations might be transformed into facts through the labour of specific networks.

For documentary the ANT perspective would involve bringing all the aspects of the documentary from production, distribution and reception to see how the documentaries themselves are actants, which each convey their own information. This would make the study of them more reflexive as analytical moves provide ways to think about how truths and facts are constructed. For Gershon and Malitsky, “That is, ANT provides a way of imagining documentary pre-production, production, post-production, distribution and exhibition practices as an integrated network for circulating knowledge.”
In his essay Actor Network theory and Media: Do They Connect and on what Terms? Nick Couldry describes ANT as an attempt to explain the social order. Couldry elaborates,

through the networks of connections between human agents, technologies and objects. Entities (whether human or non-human) within these networks acquire power through the number, extensiveness and stability of the connections routed through them, and through nothing else.

Couldry uses ANT to generate a theory of connectivity that brings together the social and nature, which includes the potential of media. Within these relations, it is the networks that set the agents in positions relative to other agents. Building on Roger Silverstone, Couldry argues that,

Networks (and therefore ANT) tells us something important about the embeddedness of social life in media and communications technologies, but they do not offer the basis for a completely new theorization of social order, nor even a new way of analyzing social action, in spite of claiming to do just that.

ANT is interested in humans and their entanglement with technology. Couldry argues that “ANT’s insistence on the necessary hybridity of what we call ‘social relations’ remains a valuable antidote to the self-effacing, naturalizing potential of media discourse and of much discourse in media studies.” Couldry citing Tarde elaborates on the increasing simultaneous conversations spread over a vast geography as one of the major important developments, which has grown exponentially since Tarde was discussing newspapers. Couldry instead of seeing technology, media or even the Internet as a faceless mechanical entity prefers ANT for being able to localize the specific relations entangled within it.
But Couldry also sees a limit to ANT and has his own critiques of it: ANT has a problematic relation to time since it neglects it. Couldry sees in this neglect of the long-term consequences of networks as overlooking of social power and the possibilities of resistance. He does not view ANT as successful when analyzing texts that are meant to be interpretative. As well Couldry argues that ANT has little to say about the processes that come after the establishment of networks.
Althought Couldry sees a relationship between ANT and media theory, he argues that it is both significant and uneasy. It is an antidote to the more functionalist versions of media theory but its problems of an insufficient attention to questions of time, power and interpretation are still serious. But it is a good base for more research around these questions.

Bruno Latour, even without directly being involved in film studies, has still managed to put pressure on the cinematic in interesting ways throughout his career. This influence is seen through his teaching relationship with Véréna Paravel, who would bring many of ANT’s tenets to the radical approach of the ethnographic documentary Leviathan, and also through his participation in the recreation The Tarde Durkheim Debate, which has him casted as Garbriel Tarde to eloquently debate some of the social theory ideas that contributed to shape him. His art writing, curation, and creations like the virtual Paris: Invisible City have theorized some key concepts in the aesthetics that he would privilege, which would enact his social theories by bringing together objects and humans with the goal of creating new relations. And finally actor-network theory allows for an interesting new approach to study the documentary, which still needs to be further developed. Latour’s intellectual work has provided cinema and film studies with many stimulants and his ideas still need to be further explored for a better understanding of what they have to offer.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Actor-Network Theory, Documentary and The Iron Ministry

This essay will elaborate on Bruno Latour’s philosophy in regard to Actor-Network Theory and its sociological goals. To do this there will be an analysis of the context surrounding Latour’s writing on the subject and its theoretical implications. Through ANT’s emphasis on circulation, it offers a unique perspective on the analysis of one form of the contemporary documentary. In particular the documentaries of Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, specifically J.P. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry (2014), which through their emphasis on rendering the sensory experience into a cinematic form they tend to treat the non-human actors as embodied with a form of agency.
Actor-Network Theory
“When we believed that we were modern, we could content ourselves with the assemblies of society and nature. But today we have to restudy what we are made of and extend the repertoire of ties and the number of associations way beyond the repertoire proposed by social explanation.” – Bruno Latour

What Bruno Latour proposes throughout Reassembling the Social is a wider definition of the social, which is one of detailing micro-associations between actors instead of utilizing broad social labels as explanations for their behavior. For Latour this is the difference between the ‘sociology of the social’ and the ‘sociology of associations’. The difference between the two is that the former tends to explain behavior and attempts to actively mobilize its data while for the latter there is an emphasis on a return to empiricism and the value of description.
            Latour’s writing on philosophy and sociology rose to prominence in the Early Nineties during the height of the Science Wars. In We Have Never Been Modern Latour argues with the rhetoric of the postmodernist. For Latour the problem with the ‘modernist’ and the ‘post-modernist’ was that their framework overlooked non-human actors and the networks between the different forms of actors. This was because,  “Instead of moving on to empirical studies of the networks that give meaning to the work of purification it denounces, postmodernism rejects all empirical work as illusory and deceptively scientific.” In preferring to be a ‘non-modern’ or an ‘a-modern’, Latour attempted to create a new theory that was more liberating.
            This brings us to actor-network theory. But what exactly is it? Latour even announces the difficulty of defining its label in the introduction of On recalling ANT, “I will start by saying that there are four things that do not work with actor-network theory; the word actor. the word network, the word theory and the hyphen!” One of the goals of Latour’s sociology of associations is to learn from the actors and let them speak for themselves, and this is without imposing on them an a priori definition of their social world. Latour offers in more detail what makes for a good ANT account,

a narrative or a description or a proposition where all the actors do something and don’t just sit there. Instead of simply transporting effects without transforming them, each of the points in the text may become a bifurcation, an event, or the origin of a new translation. As soon as actors are treated not as intermediaries but as mediators, they render the movement of the social visible to the reader. Thus, through many textual inventions, the social may become again a circulating entity that is no longer composed of the stale assemblage of what passed earlier as being part of society.

What is specific to ANT in contrast to other forms of sociology is that the actor can take many forms: human or object, insect or animal, microbe or machine. Latour cites the 19th century French sociologist Émile Durkheim (even though Latour is not really Durkheimian) as providing a good definition of what is an actor, “The first origins of all social process of any importance should be sought in the internal constitution of the social group. [italics in text] It is this internal constitution that is fundamental in defining the actor. For Latour, this emerges through their, actantiality which is “what provides actants with their actions, with their subjectivity, with their intentionality, with their morality.”
What ANT analyzes are the performance of the actors and the movements that they create. But one of the critiques of ANT is its flattening of the social and its potential to disregard class, socio-economic background, race, and gender because it strives to compose a common world which extends political participation to nonhumans. Similarly to the emancipatory potential of Jacques Rancière’s concept of the distribution of the sensible, Latour’s argument for this flattening is, “But it is just because we wish to explain those asymmetries that we don’t want to simply repeat them – and even less to transport them further unmodified. Once again, we don’t want to confuse the cause and the effect, the explanandum with the explanans.”
Latour traces the pre-cursor of ANT back to the 19th century in France to the sociologist Gabriel Tarde who defined society as, “every thing is a society and that all things are societies.” Tony Sampson elaborates on this quality of Tarde’s though when he writes,  “Tarde does not completely dismiss the idea of social wholes but argues that the whole is a manifestation of habitual repetitions of social invention and imitation.” Latour building upon Tarde would form his own definition of the network as,

Thus, the network does not designate a thing out there that would have roughly the shape of interconnected points, much like a telephone, a freeway or a sewage ‘network’. It is nothing more than an indicator of the quality of a text about the topics at hand. It qualifies its objectivity, that is, the ability of each actor to make other actors when it allows the writer to trace a set of relations defined as so many translations.

ANT concentrates attention on a movement because ANT transforms the social from a surface and territory into a circulation. The dual definition of the social is then its substance and its movements. Its emphasis is on the space between the tiny trajectories. This ‘in between’ of the networks “are the most exciting aspects of ANT because they show the extent of our ignorance and the immense reserve that is open for change.” The network is then the series of transformations-translations that are recorded. Actor-network theory is then the summing up of interactions through various kinds of devices and inscriptions into a very local and practical locus. Latour’s examples in Reassembling the Social includes the novelist Richard Powers in his novel Gain on what constitutes a business firm through the monologue of a CEO and the analysis of eight photographs of a young woman voting in France.  

Actor-Network Theory and Documentary
Latour compares ANT to perspective drawing as it “does not tell anyone the shape to be drawn – circles or cubes or lines – but only how to go about systematically recording the world-building abilities of the sites to be documented and registered.” So in the process of animating ANT into the documentary form there are some preliminary questions that need to be asked: How to give agency to a non-human actor? How would Latour’s concepts of actors, circulation and networks look in a documentary? How would it differ from other documentary forms? What type of forms should be prioritized?
            Before proceeding to analyze the work of the Sensory Ethnography Lab as examples of ANT-like documentaries, I want to focus on Alain Resnais’ Le chant du Styrène (1958) as an example of a documentary that gives agency to a non-human actor. As Latour has stated numerous times, it is the actors themselves that make up everything. Le chant du Styrène accomplishes this through its study of styrene, a colorless oily liquid that is used to make plastic, and then from its material bases the documentary examines its relationships and traces at this one manufacturing factory. The documentary begins with shots of its plastic creations, and with an authoritative commentary guiding the viewer, it moves onward throughout the factory to observe its multiple evolutions from pigmentation, storing, and finally its development into a product.
Relevant to this discussion is Martin Heidegger’s Insight Into What Is and the conception of presence and the ‘Thing’. Heidegger’s thesis on objects is similar to Latour’s emphasis on the agency of non-human actors. Graham Harman in Heidegger Explained emphasizes Heidegger’s main idea in it as being the distinction between a thing’s mysterious internal constitution and its explicit appearance. Heidegger elaborates on the concept of the fourfold (of earth and sky, gods and mortals) and how the ‘Thing’ is a mirror-play of all four terms. Harman writes, “Heidegger’s four are present at all times in all things, though they may be more concealed in some cases than in others.” For Harman the Heideggerian concepts ‘earth’ and ‘gods’ represent the past or the concealed realm and the concepts of ‘mortals’ and ‘sky’ the future or the revealed realm. Harman writes, “These bulky-sounding terms simply refer to a kind of thinking that does not represent things as objects viewed from the outside, but points toward their mysterious inwardness as unique events.”
It’s this independence of the thinghood of the thing to use Heidegger’s terms or the emphasis on non-human actors and its surrounding networks to use Latour’s, which should be the focus of identifying an ANT-like sociological documentary. Its aims should be also empirical, descriptive and un-imposing. But what should it not look like?
            Contemporary documentary seems to be experiencing a renewed golden age due to the plethora of human activity occurring in the world, the international connectivity due to globalization, affordability of digital cameras to record these events, and new ideas to engage with this unique film form. Some of recent highlights include Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence (2014) on the Indonesian genocide, Joaquim Pinto’s What Now? Remind Me (2014) on his year on an experimental AIDS medicine in Portugal, and John Gianvito’s Vapor Trail (Clark) (2010) on the environmental contamination of an abandoned American army base in the Philippines. Though all of these are interesting in their own right, in regard to both content and form, they do not necessarily necessitate an ANT approach to analyze them.
            For the purpose of my argument, Frederick Wiseman’s most recent documentary In Jackson Heights (2015) will be used as an example of a ‘sociology of the social’ type of documentary. Wiseman has been making documentaries since the Sixties and since then, even though they all share a general poetic quality and as he likes to describe them are more ‘reality fictions’, they are generally filmed in a cinéma vérité method as they chronicle a broad spectrum of institutional behavior. In Jackson Heights is set in, as the title indicates, the Jackson Heights neighborhood in Queens, New York and it focuses on the organizing of the Queens Pride Parade and the effects of gentrification on its local business owners who are being forced to relocate. Wiseman in this documentary is invested in broad social labels, as much of the film takes place at identity-based group meetings and in activist groups in opposition to the negative effects of the city’s neoliberal policies. This interest in broad social statements and its disregard to non-human actors makes it that In Jackson Heights is not representative of ANT.
            This leads to the Sensory Ethnography Lab which in their innovative visual ethnography propose a more satisfactory answer of what an ANT-like sociological documentary would look like. The SEL emerged in the mid-2000s and some of its most known documentaries are Sweetgrass (2009), Foreign Parts (2010), Leviathan (2012), Manakamana (2013), and The Iron Ministry (2014). There is an emphasis on travelling the world and rendering an exotic setting into a visually compelling documentary: Sweetgrass follows a group of shepherds and their sheep through the Montana wilderness and mountains, Foreign Parts looks at a junkyard in Willets Point, New York which is in crisis due to a new re-development project, Leviathan explores the marine life and activities of an industrial fishing ship, Manakamana gently rides along with the locals and tourist who are going both up and down a chairlift in India, and The Iron Ministry travels along the public train system in China.
SEL describes their practice in opposition to those of broadcast journalism and the standard discursive practices of visual anthropology. On their website, they describe their work as, “Harnessing perspectives drawn from the arts, the social and natural sciences, and the humanities, the SEL encourages attention to the many dimensions of the world, both animate and inanimate, that may only with difficulty, if it all, be rendered with propositional prose.” There is a general disregard for commentary, broad social labels and stereotyping. And for the purposes of this essay, the most direct connection between ANT and SEL is that Véréna Paravel, who is part of the SEL faculty and director of two of their films, studied directly under Bruno Latour.
How The Iron Ministry animates ANT is through its emphasis on non-human actors and the circulation within its networks. Non-animate objects such as fans, cigarette butts, miscellaneous animal parts, and the merchandise of a food vendor receive agency as actors who can create action. It is also sociologically descriptive for the human actors as through casual conversations and interviews they can reveal their own interests and social reality. One passengers describes what it is like being Muslim in contemporary China, another man describes his concerns with the increase in housing cost in the urban centers, and another woman describes her worries about China’s slow ascension into Tibetan society.
The networks of The Iron Ministry include the passengers, trains and its infrastructure in Mainland China. The documentary begins in darkness and all that can be heard are the noises of the train’s progression and its vibrations. J. P. Sniadecki, the director of The Iron Ministry, in an interview with Mark Peranson discussed how the project emerged out of what he described as ‘encounters’ in the Chinese railway system, with the central one being Ning Ying’s Railroad of Hope. Sniadecki spent three years filming train rides in China and turned his footage into one long continuous ride where different passengers of different classes pass through different trains going through different landscapes – all of this seamlessly coming together in The Iron Ministry. Sniadecki describes his approach as, “I took trains throughout China, striving to be thorough without a need to be exhaustive, compelled more by the desire for movement and encounter than by any documentary notion of ‘coverage.’”
ANT’s objectives offer a stimulating entry into these SEL films as its non-conventional emphasis on non-human actors and networks match some of their documentaries’ more experimental approach to render the sensory into a cinematic form. Latour’s call for a return to empiricism and description and letting the actors speak for themselves is a guiding force for his ‘sociology of association’. This clearly parallels Sniadecki’s approach in The Iron Ministry which reaches a peak when the camera carefully captures the monologue of one little Chinese boy riding a train at night. As the train is about the depart, the child, rolling around in his bed compartment, speaks out to nobody in particular,

All passengers, your attention please. The 3838-438 Train from the United States to Afghanistan is about to depart. We ask those who are not aboard please take someone else’s luggage, take someone else’s wife, and hurry aboard. Those who have explosives, bombs, and other inflammable materials with them. Please hurry aboard. And ignite them where there are crowds, to contribute to our nation’s population control policy. The train is moving fast so please extend your hands and head out of the window as far as possible, making it easier to lose them all at once. This is a civilized train, so please feel free to piss, shit, and throw trash all over the aisle. Other passengers may spit in your face and you may spit in the mouth of others, which is good for the thorough absorption of protein.