Thursday, 4 December 2008

Film aesthetics, ethics, and politics in Missing (1982)

On Tuesday I gave a talk on my work on contemporary auteurism as part of the Screen Medias and Cultures Research seminars at the University of Cambridge. It was a very enjoyable occasion for me: many thanks to those present and especially to David Trotter, Matilda Mroz, and Piotr Cieplak, the series organisers, and Emma Wilson who chaired the seminar.

There is some very interesting and important Screen Studies research going on in this Cambridge grouping. I was particularly interested to hear of that by the aforementioned Piotr Cieplak who is currently working on 'Image, memory and trauma: photographic and filmic representations of the 1994 Rwandan genocide and its aftermath'.

Discussion with Piotr Cieplak about this important topic has prompted me to publish online a related research paper of mine which deals with a cinematic representation of trauma and violence made (like some of the most prominent representations of the events in Rwanda) by those who didn't suffer this violence 'first-hand'; such repesentations prompt particular questions about the ethics of recognition. My paper (available HERE) is entitled ‘Questions of National and Transnational Film Aesthetics, Ethics, and Politics in Costa Gavras’s Missing (1982)’. Here's the abstract:

In the field of Latin American film studies, there has been a great deal of prescriptive criticism about how ‘dominant’ forms of cinema, sometimes even in the name of solidarity and raising political awareness, have crushed, deformed, or simply replaced the attempts of certain, more 'beleaguered', national cinemas to tell ‘their own’ stories about traumatic, political events. Rather than simply joining in with that criticism, it is important to set out to examine, analyse and account for what has actually happened with these ‘internationalised’ film stories during the last thirty years.

Films are never just ‘national’ (and therefore ‘good objects’) or 'international / transnational’ (and therefore ‘bad objects’): they are always made somewhere, by people who always come from somewhere, and although they may or may not be seen in lots of different places, they are obviously always seen in specific places and in specific circumstances. It is important, therefore, to study the unequal exchanges involved in such transactions, rather than simply to make assertions about iniquitousness at the outset.

The material I discuss in this paper draws on research for a project on the international fiction and documentary cinema about South American dictatorships and their aftermath, from September 11, 1973 to the present, and concerns one of the most obvious films to include in such a project: the Greek-French filmmaker Costa-Gavras’s 1982 film Missing for the North American production company Universal (on the recently released DVD of this film, the cover trumpets the movie as ‘The first American film by Costa-Gavras’ [not on the new Criterion Collection DVD version!]). This 'US film' about a hugely significant Latin American 'event', made by a non-US/non-Latin American filmmaker, has been vehemently criticised, over the years, on the political, ethical and aesthetic grounds of cultural and ethnic imperialism, and dominant-cinema ‘manipulation’.

How might a methodological narrative negotiate the minefield posed by these critical discourses? What I hope to show in my illustrated talk about Missing is that any study of cinema in a national (or 'transnational') and historical context can only be well served by paying close attention to the important political and ethical questions raised by how films aesthetically organise their multiple audiences’ access to knowledge and affect.

I have given this research paper as a talk a few times (see the PowerPoint slides which have accompanied it above), most recently on November 17, 2007 at the Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies, University of London as part of a study day on 'The National/Transnational in Hispanic and Latin American Film and the Telenovela' (alongside a great paper by Paul Julian Smith: 'Transnational telenovela: from Mexico to Spain').

It's been really interesting to revisit the paper this week as tomorrow I am acting as a respondent at a 'World Cinemas: in theory/on screen' study day organised by Jacqueline Maingard in the Department of Drama at the University of Bristol which will deal with related issues of cinematic representation, recognition and theory (Friday 5th December, 2-5 pm, Lecture Room, Dept of Drama: Theatre, Film, Television, Cantocks Close, Bristol). The titles of the Study Day papers are as follows:

  • Jacqueline Maingard (Bristol), 'African Cinema and Bamako: notes for screen theory'
  • Augusto de Oliveira (Bristol ), 'Marking time: Afro-Brazilian cinema and the quest for recognition'
  • Will Higbee (Exeter), 'Diaspora, intercultural exchange and the myth of return: recent journey film by Maghrebi-French directors'
  • Derek Duncan (Bristol), 'Princesa: transgender/transmedial/transnational'

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