25 August 2013

BLURRING THE LINE: IN REPLY TO KEVIN B. LEE

I want to take some time to offer a reply to an article referring to me by Kevin B. Lee on the Fandor website in regards to a video essay I posted on my blog titled ‘Sticking It To ‘The Man’: Instances of Cinematic Civil Disobedience and Revolt.

Filmmaker Anand Patwardhan - a radical filmmaker from India

Firstly, I want to query my writings in regards to director Robert Bresson. I have only ever posted one entry on Bresson, which was on The Trial of Joan of Arc / Proces De Jeanne D’Arc in 2009. I have made numerous references to Bresson in other writings on my blog but that hardly constitutes as specific writings on his work and whereas on Twitter, I go by the name of Bressonian, I must confess I am a fan but writings on Bresson’s work from myself are limited indeed. Therefore, it seems somewhat suspect to me when Kevin says he admires ‘my work on Bresson’. What this suggests to me is that Kevin hasn’t really done his homework and just taken the information on my blog that says Pickpocket is my favourite film as an assumption that I have also written extensively on Bresson. What this underlines is that we regularly fall into the trap of generalising about other people’s film tastes. I think this tends to happen a great deal to bloggers writing on the Internet so maybe I am making a general observation. Nonetheless, the ostensible lack of knowledge of my writings is supported by the calamity of failing to clearly identify me as the author of the video essay. This resulted in Fandor referring to me as Omer Sayed. You only have to read my twitter handler and blog to authenticate such basic information as my full name. There is a big difference between Sayed and Ahmed. Adrian Martin was first to query this and although it was corrected, it wasn’t done so completely and read Omer Ahmed. As I write this rebuttal, the post still reads Omer Ahmed, indicating either an editorial slip-up or more seriously, a case of cultural ignorance on behalf of Keyframe and Fandor. 

Kevin then fails to point out that the Vimeo channel ‘Audiovisualcy’ (created and maintained by Catherine Grant) which he refers to as ‘the most reliable curated resource for discovering critical video essays’ includes me as a moderator so I have the capacity to reject and approve which videos can be chosen to appear in the channel’s stream. He also argues that the presence of the video essay in such a reputable channel such as ‘Audiovisualcy’ gives credence to his claims that the radicalism I espouse is celebrated and the norms of radicalism are reinforced. That can hardly be true when the video has only been viewed 69 times, with most of those hits coming after Kevin’s article appeared on Keyframe. Yet again, I have to reiterate that my video essay was never about radicalism but interested in exploring ‘instances’ of Cinematic Civil Disobedience and Revolt, as I clearly state in the introduction to the essay. This low viewing figure hardly warrants the notion of ‘celebration’ when so few people have actually seen it unlike Spring Breakers (which I haven’t seen). Additionally, Kevin refers to me as a ‘prolific video essayist’. Yet again this is an exaggeration, if not, a manipulation of the facts. I produced my first video essay two years ago on Apu Sansar and since then have made a total of just seven video essays. Not exactly prolific, is it? Compare my output to say someone like Aaron Aradillas or Kevin himself and you will know what prolific actually means. In many ways, I am a novice at the job of video essayist and lack the finesse of experts like Kevin who is well versed in the language of video essays. I am just a beginner. 

My understanding is that Kevin’s criticisms of my video essay focuses on my supposed attempts to elevate the work of Tarantino and Linklater as somehow ‘radical’. I never claim that these films are ‘radical’. Of course they are not, they are populist, mainstream films but what these films do offer are ‘instances’ of cinematic disobedience/revolt that in my opinion is true of American cinema in the past, using narrative as a means of social commentary. The term ‘the man’ has almost but disappeared from contemporary discussions of political cinema, as it was a term that became associated with the counter culture movement in the late 1960s and black militancy in the 1970s. My attempt to resurrect the term ‘the man’ was to show the way hegemony works since anything oppositional or alternative usually become subsumed into the mainstream. The invisibility of the term ‘the man’ points to the way ‘the man’ has just taken on different forms now such as corporate power. I do find it a little unfair that Kevin also chooses to highlight contemporary films, ‘Fight Club to V for Vendetta to Rambo’ from my video essay as a means of validating the sincerity of his arguments. The three films he chooses to highlight along with Django Unchained are recent films, more open to interpretation than the other genuine anti-establishment films that I also make reference to. This includes Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, Do The Right Thing, if…., The Parallax View, Cool Hand Luke, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Dog Day Afternoon. Nor is there is any reference to the two examples of Indian cinema: Deewaar (The Wall) and Lagaan (Land Tax). Why omit references to such films? Who can deny films such as Sweetback and If… are genuinely anti-establishment. Why the latter ends with students gunning down the headteacher in cold blood!

It might be true that these films were never meant to be revolutionary since mainstream cinema does not have the capacity to allow for such radical political address, but it does allow for smuggling in political ideas conducive to the wider context and express those ideas in such a way that we do get ‘instances’ of anti establishment ideology. This was my point about School of Rock. Here’s a film, directed by Richard Linklater as a studio assignment, but given his Generation X status as a Hollywood outsider, he has continually used his films to stress themes such as non conformity. As Mark Kermode says, ‘Linklater understands that a die-hard anti-establishment ethos need not be anathema to multiplex friendly family fare.’ The inclusion of School of Rock in my video essay wasn’t simply to make everything look that much cooler but it focused on a key question being raised: is it not possible to be anti establishment in a mainstream context? ‘Instances’ have occurred before and will continue to do so. This was a point proven by Robin Wood’s work on horror films in the 1970s, especially populist slasher and zombie films, arguing they ‘offer an expose of the contradictions of capitalism’. So it is possible for mainstream films to critique the hegemonic system they supposedly reinforce. Kevin forgets that oppositional cinema that actually argues for a political activism through imagery of resistance ‘exists as a reaction to mainstream commercial cinema and therefore depends on the very practice it seeks to undermine.’ Given constraints to do with upload and length of the essay, I was forced to leave out directors in my video essay who also need mentioning in terms of the way they use narrative and genre conventions to articulate a political discourse that offers instances of anti establishment philosophy. This includes directors such as Oliver Stone, John Sayles and Jim Jarmusch. Besides, aren’t most political notions subjective? Radicalism is purely subjective and largely depends on cultural capital. If this is the case then everyone’s idea of what is radical will also differ. Radical cinematic address has always been complicated by the stark reality that it is usually middle class filmmakers who are in the position of making such films and that the target audience, typically the invisible, oppressed minority, do not have the means with which to access this radical address. This has meant the intended audience rarely enter the equation of radicalism except as subjects. And surely some of the films being screened by the Lincoln Center may in fact be radical works but does something like ‘dancing nude in giant celebratory circles of anti-materialist communion’ make a film particularly radical?

What this leads on to next is the culture of canonisation we are living on today especially in regards to film. Kevin pointed out the Lincoln Center’s ‘Cinema of Resistance’ series to me. It is a very important list of films, which are rightfully categorised as radical. I refute the accusation of being ‘backhanded’ in my response to Kevin’s weblink he highlighted for ‘further consideration’. My reply of ‘Thanks for the esoteric suggestions’ was not supposed to be trite in anyway. The truth is being pointed into the direction of a web page without any context seemed a little backhanded to me. Had the films come as personal recommendations from Kevin then I would have taken his initial comment more seriously. Besides, my video essay was never meant to be intellectual and it was never my intentions to slight radical cinema. Additionally, Kevin’s initial comment was followed by a link to Solanas and Getino’s 1969 manifesto ‘Toward a Third Cinema’, which I am already familiar with and have incorporated into my upcoming book on Indian cinema. I felt disappointed that Kevin simply assumed I had no understanding or realisation of such a manifesto. At the time I did leave a reply to Kevin’s initial criticisms on Vimeo, which I also feel, have been overlooked. Kevin also fails to acknowledge a video essay I produced on Naxalite cinema, a case in point about political radicalism within the strata of mainstream Indian cinema. 


Lal Salaam! - Naxalite Cinema from Omar Ahmed on Vimeo.

This returns to my intentions with my most recent video essay: is it not possible to question power, authority and the status quo in a mainstream cinematic context? Nonetheless, the problem with film programming is that like most ‘lists’, you have to be discriminatory, selecting and excluding. The Lincoln Center’s ‘Cinema of Resistance’ series does exactly that, whereby certain nations are left completely out of the equation of global radical cinema. A case in point is Indian cinema. My recent open letter to specialist DVD labels raised a number of replies that got me thinking about the role of film programming in arthouse cinemas and film festivals alike. The absence of Indian film titles from the culture of film programming is one of the reasons why Indian cinema rarely appears on the radar of western film discourse. If it does so, it is usually in the service of Satyajit Ray. The ‘Cinema of Resistance’ series could easily have chosen any of the work by documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan especially his 1971 documentary ‘Prisoners of Conscience’ which documents the Indian Emergency (1975 - 1977) through the stark personal testimonies of political prisoners. The absence of India or other significant filmmaking nations shouldn’t invalidate the noble intentions of the series, it just means that film programming is subjective and comes to reflect the tastes/prejudices of the film programmers involved. I cannot help but feel film programming and festivals are caught in this bind to exclude Indian cinema and reinforce ‘trends’. 

It is a default position to simply bring out the old age debate about high and low culture (mainstream cinema = apolitical/appropriates/dismissive vs. radical cinema = political/real/truth/activism) but I couldn’t help feel this is what Kevin was driving towards in his article, legitimising his own position as the self righteous gatekeeper of radical cinema, since his view of radical cinema dismisses any opportunities for oppositional reading in mainstream films, suggesting that mainstream cinema simply replicates the status quo and denies any ‘instances’ for alternative political address. I contest such a claim in my video essay by juxtaposing clips from various mainstream, mostly American, films to underline a continual attempt to smuggle in or explicitly question dominant values. For a lengthy analysis of Tarantino’s Django Unchained, refer to my article titled ‘Re-imagining Slavery’.

Before I finish there are two important final points I’d like to make. The first relates to a refusal to name film scholars and film critics by Kevin. Even when Kevin is discussing Spring Breakers, he never once refers to the writer in question. I haven’t seen Spring Breakers so is it a mainstream film critic you are alluding to? Why the secrecy? However, Kevin goes to the trouble of singling me and thus makes an example of me as a phony radical, suggesting that deep down I am simply part of a capitalist system that trivialises radicalism and positions it as somewhat threatening and even aberrant. I refute such claims. So who exactly are these ‘film scholars and discerning film critics’? Even more baffling is that given Keyframe’s reputation as an on-line scholarly site for new film writing, how would this even get past the editorial process? It makes one question the legitimacy of Keyframe/Fandor as a reliable and scholarly resource for cinephilia. As for, Kevin I have always admired his work but did not expect for him to put me in the firing line for a piece of work that holds little, if any, relevance to his own concerns (a concern I wholeheartedly share) about what constitutes radical cinema today. 

My final point is perhaps the reason why I felt I needed to write this defence. In his final denouncement of myself and others like me who supposedly tow the line, Kevin had this to say: ‘movies aren’t a spectator sport for us to get our rebellious rocks off via proxy, but a call to action: not just take the injustices of the world seriously, and to be motivated to actually do something about it.’ Kevin yet again assumes that I am not involved in taking action against injustices. Let me tell you a bit about myself. I’ve been teaching full time for ten years now, and all in the public sector. I have also been a member of Britain’s biggest teaching union, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) for ten years since I also believe in showing support for my fellow workers and colleagues. Over the last three years, the government has taken a sledgehammer to the education system and this had led to funding cuts for the public sector. Pay has stalled, hours have increased and group’s sizes have got bigger for teachers like myself. The NUT has called on teachers to ‘take action’ several times and I have been on strike on four occasions now. Going on strike has many consequences including loss of earnings. Wouldn’t you agree this is called being ‘motivated to actually do something about it!’, no matter how trivial or minor the cause may be when compared to other injustices. It is clearly wrong of you to categorise me as ‘getting my rebellious rocks via proxy’ since I have been active in seeking to overturn and question injustices, be they local or global ones. Although I don’t have the platform that you may have from which to articulate your criticisms I can only resort to my blog with the small audience I get occasionally. I stand by my video essay since it was never a piece about radical cinema but unfortunately has been pulled into a wider debate from which it should have been excluded since all of my clips are from mainstream films not counter hegemonic cinema. However, since I feel so passionately about the imperative role played by radical cinema and radical filmmakers around the world, as a show of solidarity and mark of up most respect I will be ‘taking down’ the video essay forthwith since I don’t want anyone else to misinterpret my work as a means of denigrating the eternal sacrifices of radical cinema. 

Omar Ahmed 

Teacher/Blogger/Cinephile/Writer

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