Re: [-empyre-] speaking of film.. and global art industry (and cultural nationalism)

[i think this is a bit late on the discussion cause i've been offline - and
apologies for the incoherence, i'm suffering from some "embodied limits to
cosmopolitanism" in the form of a stomach bug brought back from delhi]

Thanks Melinda for raising  NZ film, which I think opens a number of
productive questions of relevance to new media arts production. This is
perhaps sharpened from having just left India where Bollywood cinema seems
to open similar questions about culture, authenticity, anti-colonialism,
genre and transnational capital. Of course I know next to nothing about
Bollywood cinema outside of the economics (and even there not much) so I
won't comment on that, though I'd be very interested to hear from others.
But it was interesting that on my Singapore Air flights, featuring 60 movies
"on demand", about *20%* of the screens where watching The Whale Rider,
which was in the "favourites" category!

That it should be so successful - I am sure that it will have a longer shelf
life than Once Were Warriors -  is not surprising. It has a small girl
individually battling non-Western patriarchy, a staple of cultural
consumption in Euro-US, ignoring that the Ngati Porou tribe actually have a
long history of female warriors and a tradition of allowing women to speak
on the marae. It has the beautiful East Coast landscape. The socio-economic
struggles of Maori in the film are stripped from the context of
colonisation, removing from Western consciousness any responsibility for its
role in creating the conditions in which the individualist narrative is
played out. There are Animals (though, interestingly, the perspective of the
whales themselves plays a much stronger role in Ihimaera's book).  Disney
have with their usual skill compressed the book's complex conflicts into
recognisable and resolvable vignettes.  This is assisted by having Lisa
Gerard (Dead Can Dance and now a major auteur figure in Hollywood film
composition) score the film, a factor in its success that should not be
underestimated given Maori culture's rich tradition of evocative music that
*in theory* could have accompanied the film (I would say that if Richard
Nunns did the music the film would have been dumped on the arthouse circuit
immediately, while being a lot better). It's a well-made film, even seeing
it for the third time, it's moving and compelling, and I would probably like
it even if I didn't have an entirely other set of connections to the story
and location that raise questions about it as a cultural product.

But against the simple recognition of "being up there with the best" that
The Paul Annears raise (what is this, rugby?) there are a number of
questions that I think would help us understand what allows it to be seen as
a "quality" product by international film distributors and audiences. They
are not dissimilar to those raised by films like Tamahori's OWW, or the
circulation of new media art from India in Euro-US circles. The other day at
Sarai Mumbai curator Nancy Adajani (who I hope will publish on this)
described a dynamic of "location" and "extension" that accompanies the
production, circulation, and reception of artists such as Raqs Media
Collective and Shilpa Gupta. I wouldn't summarise her complex argument, but
I would say that I thought this formulation very powerful: with the emphasis
that these senses of "location" are cultural in nature (not "locative media"
as GPS in the way it's been used in new media arts circles) and that the
capacities to "extend" one's own "antennae" toward other locations are
unevenly distributed. In other words, as usual, it is those marginalised by
Euro-US hegemony who do the bulk of the labour of extension toward other
audiences, practitioners, and subject positions. The dialectics of
recognition and assimilation within this dynamic are well described by

The implications of these dynamics have very concrete outcomes. Let's take
the example of Whangara, the community who allowed their story to extend
into the field of transnational cinema in the Whale Rider. Concrete outcomes
have included a whole bunch of people blundering over gates to take
inappropriate, unauthorised photos of film locations. Such is the public
circulation of culture. The local real estate agent noted the sharp increase
in the number of British and South African subjects migrating to the region
in the last two years, pushing up property values, thus local property
rates/taxes, a dynamic that will inevitably result in poor local families
needing to sell and move, is a well-known dynamic in other areas where land
has been promoted through global media. These stories do not obviously get
the same level of circulation, yet they are part of the picture. One hopes
that new media arts in NZ (or new context media as Adajani calls it) can
address these issues with some reflexivity.

Films like OWW and Whale Rider allow us to inoculate ourselves against the
violence of colonisation (Barthes and Sandoval are very good on this).
Indigeneity is disembedded into a dynamic of failure to become a proper
economic subject, or romantically appropriated as the loss entailed in
entering modernity. In both these films, the relationships between the
directors and indigenous communities were well documented in the press which
of course obscures the dynamics at work in transnational film productions,
where everyone knows that the director's involvement in editing is not
always a given. We could move the discussion then, from a whether Tamahori,
as a Maori who "looks white" by his own account is adequately Maori; or Niki
Caro's ability to represent the story of Witi Ihimaera, to the longer
histories and backgrounds to how these works get made. What kind of
"extension" from the urban Maoridom depicted in OWW is required by Tamahori
to make the film? Where is he located in relation to this material? Hint:
his framing of Maori-ness as "racial" rather than "cultural" should give us
a clue to his prior success in the commercial media industry. I'd also love
to see not just a directors cut but a "Whangara remix" of the Whale Rider by
the people there (of course, Disney's rabid IP protection would prevent
this, cf. their legal efforts of Dorfman and Mattelart's "How to read Donald
Duck). To what extent can white culture "extend" to not just incorporating
the stories as a "product" (whether for films or when curating exhibitions)
but to begin a lasting process of dialogue where our priorities are able to
be transformed by the encounter?

To get an idea of the dynamics at work, I think it's useful to consider the
muted criticism of the Whale Rider from within NZ. I believe Merata Mita
subtly raised the question of why a white film maker has to direct it (easy
answer: the director must focus the story to move the target audience, which
requires cultural identification), but there has not been the kind of
critique Pihama raised about the Piano:
My conversations suggest that for a number of Maori, they are simply
relieved to have a more positive - however artificial - first impression of
their people circulating in international media channels, instead of
Warriors being the dominant image. But that is far from the end of the
complex dynamics of neocolonialism exemplified by New Zealand's
participation  in global media culture.

I relation to whether state funding is required to secure "national
cultures" in the peripheries: the more I review the history of indigenous
relations in Australia and NZ, and the more I familiarise myself with the
practices of indigenous media makers, the more I believe that cultural
nationalism in all its forms is the main source of disenfranchisement for
marginalised groups, who fail to achieve status as "unmarked human
citizens". I imagine from it's history that empyre - like most new media
gatherings - is dominated by the white middle classes like myself, and there
is a very strong cultural trope we are taught that positions state-funded
national cultural development against the evils of globalisation; and that
supporting the middle classes to make quirky, "culturally specific" forms of
established genres (that hopefully nevertheless function as
rehearsals/training for "real global media" i.e. cultural exports) is
something that those who are "culturally aware" should appreciate. Anyone
from Australasia should think about what benefit indigenous media
practitioners have received from the "quota systems" established on
broadcasting channels, requiring the provision of "local content". The
answer, of course, is almost zero, with the various, excellent, NZ
initiatives only stemming from Treaty of Waitangi obligations and political
pressure. Because if the indigenous is treated as local, suddenly there is
something "less local" - not good for national "cultural security!". Free
the airwaves, ditch the madness of spectrum auctions and the commodification
of the air in the name of the state, and let's really see what constitutes
the media of our so called "liberal multiculturalism", which is perhaps
another word for white power.

So to finish this rant I say, seriously/not-seriously, let's not just open
up the airwaves, let's open up cultural funding on an "all comers" basis,
regardless of nationality. Of course we may want to make cultural justice
one of our criteria. But these are not national issues, and cultural
nationalism is a bad hangover that's wrecking many areas of public life
(let's remember that until recently polynesian hip-hop was often lamented as
Americanisation in white NZ, rather than the expansive, joyful positioning
of the local into a global black struggle that it has always been for the
practitioners). I've got to admit a feeling of concern about the topic of
discussion this month focussing on a nation-state, even one I call my home!



#place: location, cultural politics, and social technologies:

[ Lilith] laughed bitterly. "I suppose I could think of this as fieldwork -
but how the hell do I get out of the field ?" (Octavia E. Butler, _Dawn_)

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