Tag Archives: Film

“Finding Sayun” and aboriginal romance films

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Darryl Sterk.]

Finding Sayun is a superb new anti-aboriginal romance film by Laha Mebow (陳潔瑤), a Taiwan indigenous director. The film revisits the 1943 Japanese propaganda film Sayon’s Bell about an indigenous girl from Nan-ao, a “rural township” in northeastern Taiwan, who drowned trying to carry luggage across a river for the man she adored: a departing Japanese officer. (Sayon and Sayun are two different transliterations of the same name.) Sayon’s Bell wanted to reassure the Japanese public that, a decade after the Wushe uprising in 1930, Taiwan’s indigenous peoples had been converted to imperial subjects, and to convince aboriginal braves to fight for the emperor: it would be hard to resist after hearing Sayun singing the inspiring Song of the Taiwan Soldiers:

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Anthropologist Bites Dog

I recently had an opportunity to watch José Padilha’s “Secrets of the Tribe” which purports to put “the field of anthropology… under the magnifying glass in [a] fiery investigation of the seminal research on Yanomamö Indians.” This film has been a big success at festivals, screening at Sundance, Hotdocs, etc. and has also been shown on HBO and the BBC, making it one of the most successful recent films about anthropology, yet it seems to have gotten scant attention from anthropologists.

What attention it has gotten has largely been positive, such as this glowing review in CounterPunch, or this blog post by Louis Proyect. A review in VAR was slightly more critical, but not by much. Still, the following comment from Stephen Broomer’s review gets to the heart of the matter:

Padilha’s contribution to this debate is confined within the limits of documentary form. Secrets of the Tribe is a narrative-driven documentary, and as such it privileges dramatic contrast over the reinforcement of facts or proof.

Indeed, I would go much further. The film struck me as little more than tabloid journalism, reveling in salacious scandals, academic cat fights, and conspiracy theories in the name of discussing research ethics and scientific methodology. It reminded me of one of those local news stories where a reporter exclaims how shocked he is to discover that there is prostitution in his city while the camera indulges in digitally blurred closeups of exposed female flesh.

In comparing this film to tabloid journalism I don’t mean to impute Padilha’s motives. Padilha is clearly someone who cares deeply about Brazil’s indigenous population. He also deserves credit for actually interviewing Yanomami for the film. But Padilha is not an anthropologist. As one review put it: “A student of math and physics, Padilha turned to filmmaking after a brief, unsatisfying career in banking.” (He is most famous for “Bus 174” about a hijacked bus in Rio.) For this reason he seems unable to meaningfully engage with contemporary debates about fieldwork practices or the nature of anthropological research.

I don’t really know which bothered me more: the lumping together of pedophilia accusations against Jacques Lizot and Kenneth Good with Patrick Tierney’s accusations against James Neel and Napoleon Chagnon, the fact that the film completely ignored Tim Asch even as it relies extensively on his footage, or the way it presented anthropological epistemology as a simplistic choice between the hard-science of sociobiology on the one hand and mushy-headed cultural relativism on the other.

What really upsets me is that these are serious issues, which warrant serious discussion. By simplifying the scientific debates and lumping them together with pedophilia accusations, the film missed a unique opportunity to make an important contribution to the popular understanding of anthropology. Too bad.

Dominance and Science: Lessons from Chimpanzees

At the weekend I saw the film Project Nim, a documentary about the chimpanzee at the center of a language learning experiment at Columbia University in the 1970s. It’s a great film for anthropologists. Not only are these misdirected intellectual endeavors an important part of the history of the discipline, the social universe portrayed in the film raises questions still relevant today about power, authorship and inequality in the knowledge sector.

The film is partly the tragic story of the chimpanzee, Nim, brought up as a human baby in a New York brownstone, breast fed by his `foster mother’ and taught sign language by a succession of young, mostly female, research assistants.

As Nim matures into adult chimphood his massive strength and capacity to bite mean that he can no longer be contained in a human environment without posing considerable risk to the research team. He is returned to the primate facility where he was born, a brutal environment where electric cattle prods are used to control the animals, who are eventually sold on to a medical research laboratory. Campaigning by one of his previous carers and the intervention of a lawyer prepared to extend arguments about human rights to animals raised as human leads to Nim’s eventual rescue and he ends his days in an animal sanctuary where he is ultimately reunited with some of the other chimps from the laboratory.

Nim’s problematic behaviour as he grows up is oriented toward his quest for dominance, the natural behaviour of an adult male chimpanzee. Nim’s carers and the research staff assigned to work with him have to become adept at displaying dominance in the right way or risk serious injury.Dominance matters in other ways not restricted to the social universe of chimpanzees. The film presents a visual snapshot of the hierarchies of power and domination which structured academic life in the 1970s through the relationships between the lead scientist and his junior, mostly female, assistants. The assistants undertake the bulk of the day to day work of experimentation and hand on care for the chimpanzee. The professor does, disseminates and takes credit for the `science’, at one point totally altering his own interpretation of the significance of the experiment. In his view, which differed from that of the people who spent their daily lives interacting with the animal, the inability of chimpanzees to structure sentences grammatically was conclusive proof that they lacked the capacity for language.

Of course, the professor’s narrow definition of language as opposed to a wider concept of communication and the divergences of interpretation are of considerable interest, not least in demonstrating the ways in which the framing of a research object determines the scope of what can be considered findings within a particular scientific paradigm, the kind of narrow cause and effect paradigm we face on our forays into Grantlandia’s uncertain territory. But what struck me about this film was its insight into laboratory life in another era, and the ways in which some things change and some things become institutionalized to the point of being foundational.

The institutionalization of ethical review and changes in the legal framework about experiments on animals in many countries mean that what happened to Nim hopefully could not happen again so easily. I am less certain about the imbalance of power between lead scientists and staff, between seniors and juniors. While the gender dimensions of exploitation exposed in the film may be less prevalent today there is no doubt that current mechanisms for funding and employment in Universities in the UK and the US work to promote the silverback and embed this kind of structural hierarchy.

The move towards funding modalities of large projects modeled on the natural sciences system raises questions for anthropologists who have worked as individual scholars, contributing to team endeavors certainly, but not seeking to produce data on which a lead scientist’ can pronounce. In such situations how do we manage the balance between individual contribution andscientific case’? What are the lines of authorship and ownership between the project leader who holds the funding and researcher in the field? To what extent are conventions of multiple authorship coming in to anthropology as these funding relations alter the social organization of our work? Given the climate in Grantlandia is the future for more of us, especially postdocs, jobbing support to other, often interdisciplinary, projects?

Consider Donating to Kerim’s Film

I think Kerim is too much of a gentleman to shill for his own project here on Savage Minds, so I’ll do it for him: consider donating to help him wrap up production of his film Please Don’t Beat Me Sir.

For just about as long as I’ve known him, Kerim has been working on PDBMS, about a stigmatized Indian tribal group who try to forge a future for themselves be performing street theater dramatizing their plight and other social justice issues. He’s been going on about the project for years, and most of the time I nodded my head politely and was like: yeah whatever street theater blah blah South Asia blah blah. I mean: some guy get a perfectly good Ph.D. from a respected university, moves to job in the ass-end of Taiwan, and then spends most of this time ranting on the Internet about Gramsci and editorials in the New York Times — and now he’s got some ‘documentary film’ he’s making. Really, what’s the chances of it being any good?

Except a few months ago I managed to get a sneak peak of the film and was pleasantly surprised that it is not just good, but actually very very good — which made me feel a lot better about asking my students to sit through the thing for extra credit. I repeat: it’s good. By any standards. To me the greatest part of the film is that it managed to convey on screen the immediacy and power of live theater, something that it is almost impossible to do. The ethics of the film making project are equally fascinating: it’s a film about Chharas not by them, except that they are performers so in a sense it is by them. It’s something less than ‘collaborative anthropology’ of the Lassiter mold, but also something more in its willingness to experiment with a form that goes beyond the usual cliches of sharing and caring with your host community.

Plus also there is a point at which someone puts a hand over the camera and you get to hear Kerim go all Michael Moore on people and demand in his New York accent “no you tell us why we have to stop filming.So, you know, it has that going for it.

If you go to the movie home page and donate US$35 you can get to watch the film. But really, if you’ve ever appreciated all the work Kerim has done for Savage Minds, I think the donation site will accept way less than thirty five bucks. The money will be used to burnish up the final edit so that it can be shown in prime time at the Busan film festival.

As a policy we don’t make announcements of this sort on SM but I wanted to make an exception in this case so that Kerim can feel some of the SM love that he’s accrued over the past couple of years and his excellent film gets the support it deserves.

I Got Remixed by a Palestinian Hip-Hop Activist

A while back I wrote an incendiary post Remix Culture is a Myth that got me accused of elitism and other signs of unhipness. Stepping off of a tweet by Andrew Keen (“remix is a myth. … Barely anyone is remixing…”), I claimed remix culture receives way more academic attention than it’s small examples deserved. Biella Coleman and others correctly reminded me that it isn’t its quantity or quality but its challenge to legal institutions and liberal philosophy, as well as novel modes of production within and maybe beyond capitalism that make remix important. They convinced me of these points but I am still reeling from a new experience that added another perspective to my understanding of the impact of remix culture. My footage just got remixed by a Palestinian activist. 

A little over a month ago I uploaded 24 minutes of raw footage of the Palestine/Israel Wall I shot in 2009. This is footage for a documentary I am making about divided cities. I’ve finished the sections on Nicosia, Cyprus and Belfast, North Ireland and I’ve finished shooting but not editing this story on East Jerusalem. Unedited and with its natural sounds I thought it was gritty and evocative enough to stand alone on YouTube. I uploaded it and titled it “Palestine Apartheid Wall Raw Footage.” Last week I got a YouTube message from user WHW680 who kindly informed me that he remixed my footage into the French pro-independent Palestine hip-hop video “the Wall of Zionist Racist Freedom for Palestine.” Shocked and honored I watched the video.

Artistically, WHW680 doesn’t use the shots I would; he doesn’t get the projection ratios right; I wouldn’t quite be so intense with the title; and he cuts the edits too early or too late, making the viewing experience choppy. I am being intentionally superficial here for a reason, as I am trying to express the first round of mental dissonance experienced when remixed. As a cinematographer it is an enlightening if challenging ordeal. It gets deeper, too, when your work is not only remixed in a way that challenges your technical and artistic vision but is used politically in surprising ways.

The footage was used to make a music video for the track “Palestine” by Le Ministère des Affaires Populaires, a popular Arab-French hip-hip group in Paris, off of “Les Bronzés Font du Ch’ti” described as “an album that sounds like a call to rebellion, insurrection and disobedience but also solidarity.” They tour Palestine, including Gaza. The music is fantastic, mixing breaks, good flows, meaningful lyrics, and longing violins. Obviously I can get behind the activism of a liberated Palestine but becoming a tool for propaganda, despite my agreement with it, without my vocal consent, is a creatively dissonant experience.

Political semiotic engineering for the right causes I can dig, but agency denying actions are experienced as a type of cognitive violation nonetheless. The quintessential sign of this is the final few second of the video. After the footage ends and while the music still lingers, the words “Freedom, Return, and Equality,” and “Free Palestine-Boycott Israel,” and www.bdsmovement.net circle a Palestinian flag. This final frame essentially brands this video for the BDS Movement, a civil rights organization focused on “boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with international law and Palestinian rights.”

This isn’t “my” footage anymore, WHW680 generously cites me in the description, but the semiotic potential of the footage previously shot by me is mobilized for the BDS Movement. The aesthetic and the political fold into each other in remix activities in which preceding agencies, my own as cameraman, is incorporated or replaced by the technical agencies of the French remixer, WHW680, and reformulated into the political vision of the pro-Palestinian BDS Movement. Which is all good, but it gives me a new look at remix culture.

This experience has forced me to eat some of my words. Remix culture isn’t a myth. I agree with my earlier detractors who stated that it isn’t about the volume of the activity nor the impact of this remixed song or that music video. I would add something more. Being remixed is personally transformative for those being reformatted by values and practices beyond their control. Not only does remix challenge jurisprudence and liberalism, and present new modes of knowledge production, it also modifies the subjective constitution of agency in artistic and political social sphere.

What Tim Hetherington Offered to Anthropology

Tim HetheringtonOn March 15th, I moderated a panel at RISD called Picturing Soldiers: The Aesthetics and Ethics of Contemporary Soldier Photographs featuring photographers Lori Grinker, Jennifer Karady, Suzanne Opton, and Tim Hetherington, who as killed today in Libya.

One of the amazing things about the work of each of these artists is how resonant it is with what we do as anthropologists. Like ethnography, their images are not simply about ‘documentation.’ They are about conveying something of lived experience that allows us, provokes us, to ask questions about how some particular lives come to look they way they do. They invite us to linger on the lives of soldiers long enough to think about how they are, and also are not, like others.

It strikes me that in our disciplinary conversations about what various modes of anthropological engagement might look like, we often fail to recognize the possibilities of such resonances. These possibilities are especially promising when the lives we explore are characterized, in one way or another, by war. Here, issues of politics and ethics lie both close to the surface and close to the bone. Tim Hetherington’s work was powerful proof of these possibilities.

For example, he said many times that he hoped Restrepo, his thoroughly ethnographic Afghanistan war documentary, co-directed with Sebastian Junger, would offer a new and more productive starting place for thinking about the war and US military intervention.

As Tim put it in an excellent interview at Guernica where he responds to Leftist criticism of the film:

While moral outrage may motivate me, I think demanding moral outrage is actually counter-productive because people tend to switch off. […] Sure, the face of the U.S. soldier is the “easiest entrée into the Afghan war zone” but it has allowed me to touch many people at home with rare close-up footage of injured and dead Afghan civilians (as well as a young U.S. soldier having a breakdown following the death of his best friend). Perhaps these moments represent the true face of war rather than the facts and figures of political analyses or the black and white newsprint of leaked documents.

In a more personal mode, Tim offered the experimental film Diary, which reflects something of the compulsions, rhythms, and senses of his movement into and out of ‘zones of killing’, as he suggested we might think of such spaces. Here too, we can find resonances with anthropological explorations of the particular vertiginous experiences of being in and out and in such spaces of violence, and of the uneven geographies of deadly violence.

News continues to unfold about the incident in Libya that may have also killed photographer Chris Hondros, and that seriously injured photographers Guy Martin, Michael Christopher, among others. And as we continue to hear more of Tim Hetherington’s death, and more remembrances of his life and work, I’ll also be thinking about what his work, and the work of other artists and journalists, has to offer us anthropologists; the places where our various projects meet, and the possibilities for thinking and acting that might begin from there.

Two Python Docos

I’m not a visual anthropologist or film person, but I do love films that seem ‘ethnographic’ to me — and I’ve been watching a lot of them on Netflix Streaming while taking care of my kids. Two in particular struck me as sufficiently anthro to mention here — and both have to do with Monty Python.

The first, Monty Python: Almost The Truth: The Lawyer’s Cut, is an ambitious six episode documentary about Monty Python’s Flying Circus, beginning with the childhood of the members and ending with Meaning Of Life. The main reason to watch the film is, of course, to relive all of your favorite Monty Python moments and to learn more about what went on behind the scenes. If you, like me, have not watched Monty Python since you were a teen-ager, it’s a real treat to revisit half-remembered (and thoroughly memorized) sketches. The best part of the documentary is that it is not just about Python, but it is also done in the style of Python, complete with newsreaders in gravel pits, montages, flying cattle, and sudden cuts to television screens with images that then become the image on your television screen.

Beyond the nostalgia value, though, the topics — British sketch humor in the 1950s and 60s, Python’s place in counterculture as it developed and so forth — are of broader interest. And even more interesting are the interviews: most of the footage for the documentary is based on long, biographical interview with each Python.

Whatever they did to get those guys to open up worked — it is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of people who are, as Gary Fine would say, in the ‘late summer’ of their lives, reflecting back on something that was very very important to them. I’m sure many anthropologists have been in the position of interviewing people like this. The interviews are candid and fresh — neither distanced nor (despite the occasional anecdote that you can tell has been phoned in) the extremely surface-level ‘official candid’ story that you get sometimes from celebrities. That, I think, is what good interviewing looks like.

Their stories are interesting in and of themselves as well — these are happy, well-balanced people who have managed to become incredibly successful doing something they loved. Their different personalities are obvious — Cleese’s self-confident, genteel extroversion; Palin’s teddy-bear amiability; Gilliam’s narcissism-tinged ambition. But despite these differences you can’t help watch it and think: I wonder if there’s a lesson in here for me? I’d more than highly recommend it.

The second is Terry Jones: Medieval Lives, one of a series of miniseries he’s done. Those of us who remember back in the day when The Return of Martin Guerre was the shit will recognize it as not just history, but cultural history: engagingly told, featuring Gilliam-esque cutout animation from medieval books. Like much of Jones’s work, the narrative works by debunking common assumptions and is organized loosely around stereotypes: one episode on the minstrel, one on the kind. In fact these end up being about politics (the king), governance (the minstrel) and so forth. But they do a great job of disabusing people of the Victorian lens through which this period — and thus so much in the fantasy genre — is set. It is, as they say, ‘good for teaching’.

Hmmm… I haven’t really touched on Michael Palin’s travel documentaries (the dhow episode in Around The World In 80 Days a huge favorite of mine) but perhaps I’ll cover that in a future entry…. or maybe we could get him to guest blog?

Breaking the Maya Code

I’m not a Mayanist, but maybe this means I’m more — rather than less — competent to endorse David Gruber’s LeBrun’s documentary Breaking The Maya Code. I read Michael Coe’s book of the same name years ago a few years back and enjoyed it, and the movie is even better — wonderful, in fact. If you have even a drop of geeky epigrapher in you, then you’ll love the interviews with well-known names dripping with enthusiasm over syllabaries. Even if you are not, the film does a great job of walking the viewer through a pretty detailed understanding of how Maya glyphs work. Along the way you get a pretty decent over view of classical Mayan culture and history as well.

What I liked best about the documentary beside its depth and elegance was the fact that it began with contemporary Mayan communities and discussed the history of colonialism they’d lived through as a segue to early Spanish explorers and the origins of Western attempts to understand Mayan culture. The movie then closes with indigenous communities working with researchers to teach the next generation of adorable Mayan children how to read and write glyphs, which is both very cute and a sterling example of how not to treat Mayans if they were ‘extinct’. Its rare in ‘ancient civilization’ documentaries to get this sort intelligent, responsible reportage.

The score by Yuval Ron is good too. Its a bit too long to show in class, but is streaming on Netflix, so it is not that hard to get ahold of so… enjoy!

Kapah (Young Men): Alternative Cultural Activism in Taiwan

This post is an occasional contribution by Futuru C.L. Tsai. Futuru recently got his Ph.D. in July 2010 from the Institute of Anthropology at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan. His dissertation is entitled Playing Modernity: Play as a Path Shuttling across Space and Time of A’tolan Amis in Taiwan. He was a training manager in a semiconductor corporation originally but quit to pursue a Ph.D. in anthropology. Futuru is also an ethnographic filmmaker and writer, who has produced three ethnographic films including Amis Hip Hop (45 min, 2005), From New Guinea to Taipei (83 min, 2009), and The New Flood (51 min, 2010), and a book: The Anthropologist Germinating from the Rock Piles (Shiduei zhong faya de renleixuei jia) (Taipei: Yushanshe, 2009).

Kapah (Young Men) /Lyrics & Music: Suming

Are there any young men who can sing out there? Are there any men who can dance? Are there any men who are good in school? Are there any men who are good at making money? Are there any men who are good at planting crops? Are there any men who are good at gathering? Are there any men who are good at spearing fish? Are there any men who are good at cooking? Are there any fun men out there? Are there any strong men? Are there any hard workers? Are there any men that work together? Yes, there are the young men from A’tolan!

A brand new music album with complete Amis lyrics by the Amis artist, Suming, was released in May 2010. It is not the first Amis music album but is the first one attempting to crossover into popular music market in Taiwan, combining indigenous melodies such as Amis polyphony and flutes together with techno-trance, hip-hop, and Taiwanese folk music. Among these songs, “Kapah,” which means “young men” in the Amis language, is the theme song. Lungnan Isak Fangas, a documentary filmmaker, who is also an Amis, made two music videos for this album, one of them is Kapah. Both the song and the music video not only represent aspects of local A’tolan Amis culture but also attempt to make this culture appealing to Taiwanese society at large.

There are currently 14 indigenous ethnic groups (referred to as “Aborigines”) officially recognized by the Taiwan government. The Amis is the largest of these austronesian speaking ethnic groups in Taiwan. There are two conspicuous characters of Amis society and culture relevant to understanding this video: One is that it is widely considered a matriarchal society, although its status as such is still under debate. Nonetheless, the image of the mother holds a central place in Amis society. The other one is the age-grade system with its rigid regulations. Age sets are organized around males who have passed the coming of age rites in the village within a given time period. Each age set (kapot) will include men born within a few years of each other. It is the main political unit, handling the affairs of both outsiders and insiders.

The song Kapah differs from earlier indigenous music in its depiction of indigenous modernity. Continue reading

‘Life at the Googleplex’: Corporate Culture, Transparency, and Propaganda

How the hell am I going to get access to study these uber-elite media companies? In my desperation to find ethnographic facts about ‘corporate culture’ at the new media conglomerated behemoths I am viewing these reflexive industrial videos Google and its subsidiary YouTube upload about themselves. What are these things? Part recruitment propaganda to solicit CVs from the world’s top engineers, part PR-campaign to provide proof of its post-China ‘do no evil’ mantra, part braggadocios chest bump and back slap these videos must have some information that can provide evidence for the ‘real’ internal values and dynamics that influence the 20,000 employees and the 100s of millions of networked people that use their digital tools daily.

<object width=”425″ height=”344″><param name=”movie” value=”http://www.youtube.com/v/eFeLKXbnxxg&hl=en_US&fs=1&”></param><param name=”allowFullScreen” value=”true”></param><param name=”allowscriptaccess” value=”always”></param><embed src=”http://www.youtube.com/v/eFeLKXbnxxg&hl=en_US&fs=1&” type=”application/x-shockwave-flash” allowscriptaccess=”always” allowfullscreen=”true” width=”425″ height=”344″></embed></object>
But before I begin this bite-sized Youtube videothon I want to query if anthropological tools exist for such research. First, how would an anthropologist contextualize and categorize these videos? Reflexive, check. Industrial, check. Commercial, probably. They are not viewer-created but they have the amateur aesthetic. Textual studies of reflexive and industrial media and websites in anthropology is under-developed. In that historic genre, ‘ethnographic film,’ there were calls for greater reflexivity. And there are ethnographic investigations into the social life of social media. Patricia Lang, danah boyd, Heather Horst, and Mimi Ito can be consulted for this. And I am sure that there are numerous anthropological studies of race/class/gender as exhibited on Youtube. Alexandra Juhasz and Michael Wesch use YouTube as a pedagogical tech. But as far as I am aware, nobody has thought to look at how governments, corporations, and other institutions self-visualize a public persona. Secondly, who has analyzed the particular limitations and possibilities of this new platform for cultural expression? There is more cultural material on YouTube than in anywhere in the world. We must be able to incorporate this data.
<object width=”425″ height=”344″><param name=”movie” value=”http://www.youtube.com/v/VzMPV3YEI_8&hl=en_US&fs=1&”></param><param name=”allowFullScreen” value=”true”></param><param name=”allowscriptaccess” value=”always”></param><embed src=”http://www.youtube.com/v/VzMPV3YEI_8&hl=en_US&fs=1&” type=”application/x-shockwave-flash” allowscriptaccess=”always” allowfullscreen=”true” width=”425″ height=”344″></embed></object>
The first order of analysis would be to use a political economic widget to find out what they hope to get out of this video. Usually, saying something about increasing profit and consumption is enough here. The second order would be to use textual analysis to look for accidental data points. Start with the simple realization that you are seeing into the company, notice the use of space, of the personalization of cubicles, etc. Thirdly, mix these two approaches, political economy and cultural studies, to read the subtle cues and beyond the avowed interview revelations. Pretend you have ethnographic free-reign, knowing that would always be partial even with clearance. As partial and incomplete as these video documents are a conjunctive approach will be necessary. My girlfriend suggested to me that a corporation’s IPO documents are usually remarkably honest and revealing. Also high-tech investment firms/websites such as Techcrunch keep publically available data on acquisitions, investments, and other reflexive materials. Ken Auletta’s book, Googled: The End of the World as we Know It, is incredibly revealing about Google corporate culture but is based on only a few interviews with Page, Brin, and a number with CEO Eric Schmidt. My point is that much can be done with little if the right tools are used.
<object width=”425″ height=”344″><param name=”movie” value=”http://www.youtube.com/v/aOZhbOhEunY&hl=en_US&fs=1&”></param><param name=”allowFullScreen” value=”true”></param><param name=”allowscriptaccess” value=”always”></param><embed src=”http://www.youtube.com/v/aOZhbOhEunY&hl=en_US&fs=1&” type=”application/x-shockwave-flash” allowscriptaccess=”always” allowfullscreen=”true” width=”425″ height=”344″></embed></object>
The take-away nugget is that the internet provides tools and reasons for greater corporate transparency. Some corporations answer these calls to use the web to exhibit their tax records and to incorporate users/viewers/participants into internal and external regimes of governance and profit-generation. Other corporations expose their chain of production and distribution and how it misses layovers in child labor farms or despotic regimes and ecological disasters. This is all quite wonderful. But along with greater awareness and transparency is also greater capacity for manipulation of the veneer of transparency. So we must be vigilant in our textual readings of corporate transparency practices and perceive beyond the public persona to the numerous motives, values, and metrics for success that corporations deploy. We must figure out sophisticated techniques to study these powerful institutions. Textual study of the secondary and third order of values encoded in publically available online documents is one way. Even if new media corporations isn’t your anthropological fetish, it is certain that some strangely useful video about your fieldsite or subject exists on Youtube and you are going to have to explain your justifications for using it in your research.  I invite us to co-develop these tools.

Avatar: What did they eat?

First off a quick link on avatar and anthropology: a brief article on anthropologist (and Melanesianist!) Nancy Lutkehaus helping plan the Navi.

Ok now on the meat of the post. I have not followed discussion of Avatar on an site other than our own, but as I think more about it, the less I am convinced that we get a sense of Navi society. Does anyone remember actually seeing them eat? There must have been some farming. And although I remember a few shots of kids (running away, mostly) there wasn’t much on that. In fact we miss the main facts of how Navi society reproduced itself. Am I wrong here?



I recently had a chance to see the movie Avatar in glorious IMAX 3D, which is the only way I would recommend anyone see the film. It is certainly not a film one sees for the writing, or the characters, or the story telling. It is a spectacular display of visual pyrotechnics, and I should probably leave it at that. However, the film is like a giant anthropological piñata and after two days of sitting on my hands I can’t hold off any more.

[I don’t think I mention anything in this post which you couldn’t gleen from the trailer, but I’ve posted everything after the jump to help those particularly worried about accidentally encountering spoilers.]

Continue reading

On (Un)seeing

One of the films I neglected to mention in my last post on the Taiwan Int’l Ethnographic Film Festival TIEFF was Patrasche, A Dog Of Flanders – Made in Japan. Because it is a feature length film, I didn’t list it as a teaching film, although I could easily see it being used in a class on popular culture. The film is a humorous exploration of how the book “A Dog of Flanders” which is very popular in the US, UK, and Japan has been adapted and received in each of those countries, as well as in the place the story is set: Flanders. The basis for several films and a Japanese anime TV show, this book has never caught on in Flanders, although there have been some belated efforts by Belgians to cash in on the story’s popularity with Japanese tourists.

The film states several times that one reason the story of failed to become popular in Belgium is that the residents of Flanders don’t see Flanders when they read the book or watch the films, or the TV show. Rather, what they see is Holland. This isn’t surprising, since visiting filmmakers will find little pastoral beauty in modern day industrial Flanders, and Holland is just a twenty minute drive away. But while foreigners might not be able to tell the subtle differences in dress, or even the color of stones used in the streets and buildings, the people who live there are very, very aware.

I probably would not have thought twice about this, except I have also been reading China Mieville’s surreal crime-story, The City & The City. Here is how the Guardian describes the book’s central premise:

the city of Beszel exists in the same space as the city of Ul Qoma. Citizens of each city can dimly make out the other, but are forbidden on pain of severe penalties (administered by a supreme authority known simply as Breach) to notice it. They have learned by habit to “unsee”. The cities have different airports, international dialling codes, internet links. Cars navigate instinctively around one another; police officers cooperate but are not allowed to stop or investigate crimes committed in the other city.

The novel takes a trick or two from my favorite writer, Bruno Schulz, imagining twin cities occupying the same physical space. A situation reminiscent of another enjoyable film from the TIEFF festival, Jerusalem(s), which follows Jewish, Muslim, and Christian tour guides around Jerusalem. Constantly cutting to the numerous surveillance cameras which are also watching. But the book captures something which is not just true of divided cities like Jerusalem or cold-war Berlin, it is also of Flanders. In order to “unsee” someone from Ul Qoma, the residents of Beszel must be alert to subtle signs of dress and manner, just as the residents of Flanders would never be mistaken for Dutch.

I believe manner of seeing is something we don’t just learn, it is something we cultivate. We are proud of our ability to (un)see differences. Every once in a while I meet a Taiwanese, usually someone who lives abroad, or has travelled widely. They peg me for Jewish, but don’t want to broach the topic directly, so the usually ask me if I might not be French. When I insist that I am not, however, they usually garner up the courage to pursue the question until they’ve established that they were correct to begin with. I also know my friends of mixed ancestry (which, of course, is all of us – but you know what I mean) can cause tremendous significant discomfort in random strangers, simply because they are difficult to peg. A Japanese-Afghan friend gets asked: “What are you?” by total strangers on the subway. Once they know “what” she is, they can go back to unseeing her.

UPDATE: Some slight corrections made.