Watching Experimental Films in Our Settler Colonial Context

by Critical Media Practice student and FSC Flaherty Fellow, Shireen Hamza

I wasn’t really sure what the Flaherty seminar was, beyond a large group of people gathering to watch and discuss films, three times a day for seven days. I knew about the principle of non-predispositionthat I would be walking into each day’s three programs without knowing what I would be watching beforehand. But before arriving and speaking with some of the participants who had attended previous seminars, I did not know of the many significant changes that the organizers of Flaherty have made over the last few years. Though the seminar has a long history of being a place for international film, the organizers have of-late been choosing programmers who could uniquely center communities of artists whose work is marginalized in, and not widely accessible in, the US.

In 2018, the programmers were African American artists Kevin Jerome Everson & Greg de Cuir Jr., and next year’s programmer will be Professor Janaína Oliveira, a Brazilian scholar and programmer focused on Black filmmakers across Latin America. And organizers have responded to the call by Sky Hopinka and others to change the logo, which used to be an objectionable representation of an Inuit character from the eponymous Robert Flaherty’s famous film, Nanook of the North.

I had been so drawn to the description of this year’s seminar — Action! — and interested in what kind of films might be programmed by Shai Heredia, an organizer of India’s first experimental film festival, that I had not reflected on the broader shifts that this specific seminar was a part of at The Flaherty. Entering this art space, which centered artists from across Asia, I was also pleased to see that there were many attendees (and fellows, specifically) from Asia, and of various Asian diasporas, as well as artists and curators of other historically marginalized identities within the US.

I am grateful to the Film Study Center and the Flaherty for this incredible opportunity for me to watch films made by Rox Lee in the Philippines, Sachiko Kobayashi and Kazuo Hara in Japan, Trinh-Thi Nguyen in Vietnam, Chan Hau Chun in China, and by an undocumented Phillpino-American filmmaker, Miko Revereza, as well as several Indian artists.[2] Much could be said about the intricacies of gender, nation, diaspora, war and at play in the works of each of these artists, each of whom astonished me with their formal strategies. I feel that I should focus my comments on some of the works made by artists from across India, especially since, as a student in Critical Media Practice, I feel it is important to speak to the world of film from within the sensitivities created by my disciplinary training as a historian, though not a scholar of film.

One of the Indian films in the program, which was not made by a filmmaker in attendance, was a surrealist film made in 1988 called Om Dar-B-Dar — which the programmer, Shai Heredia, introduced as a major influence on experimental filmmakers in India and her gift to the seminar participants. This comment was important in reminding me and perhaps others at the seminar that there is a very rich genealogy of film and visual culture for Indian filmmakers which I knew nothing about. This resonated also with several important questions raised by participants throughout the seminar, like the one for visual artist Simone Leigh. After we watched Rox Lee’s short film, Juan Gapang Johnny Crawl, Simone said that she thought of the work of Pope.L and noted that the artworks she referred to throughout the seminar were primarily by Western artists (perhaps as opposed to other artists in the Philippines).  She left this comment open for a response from any of the seminar’s featured filmmakers or attendees, but I remember that there was a quiet moment in the room, perhaps one of reflection, after she sat down.

Something I am taking from Simone’s question is, in the US, how do we watch, program, and study the work of artists from other places when we are not familiar with the local genealogies of art in those places, and when most people in the audience do not know about the (visual) cultures of those places. Though the work of artists in the West is no doubt a relevant genealogy for many experimental filmmakers and artists in Asia, how do we make space for those with knowledge relevant to each locale to bring those other genealogies and contexts forward, for a more rich and balanced discussion? There was not, perhaps, a single person who may have had knowledge of visual art in all of the many places these filmmakers came from, but there were many artists and scholars in attendance at the Flaherty with deep knowledge of, and experience working in, one or two of them. One curator, Jemma Desai, observed toward the end of the seminar that, despite the abundance of South Asian scholars, artists and programmers in attendance, many of the discussions of the various Indian filmmakers’ works did not center around local issues. There were many thoughtful facilitators of discussions, who used different strategies to encourage new voices to speak, and I believe I still have much to learn about how to structure inclusive and accessible discussions of film.

I have little knowledge of Western art and was hearing most of these references for the first time, besides having seen Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, evoked by Trinh-Thi Nguyen in her essay films (especially Letters from Panduranga). So returning to history, about which I know a little more, I’d like to speak about the way some films made by Indian artists made me reflect on contemporary film in the settler colonial setting of the USA.

Shambhavi Kaul’s film, 21 Chitrakoot, is a revealing work that I hope to be able to revisit myself and, one day, teach with. By manipulating scenes from a ubiquitous TV version of the Mahabharata, produced by the national Doordarshan network, she removed the characters from scenes to allow us to focus on the eerie, fantastical backdrops. She said that she was interested in the way Ancient India was being depicted for global consumption on television in the late 80s, and found it interesting that the series was “meant to manufacture authenticity when the backdrops seem anything but.” I see this film as a much more open-ended way to encourage reflection and discussion (especially with students) about the way Indian nationalism (including the right-wing nationalism currently in power) has shaped many people’s historical imaginary of the subcontinent, both in and out of India, and how this was tied to the specificities of television.

I thought of the role of the ancient Indian past in moments both dramatic and mundane, like the scenes of men gathered for late-night discussions of divine and revered figures from mythology and history, as if they were acquaintances. This was from Kush Bhadwar and the Delhi-based artist collective wala’s film, We in a 1 Room Kitchen – Field 0.75. I also thought of this issue in the opening scenes of Priya Sen’s documentary film, Yeh Freedom Life, set at the bright stages of a massive national convention center. In one area, pregnant Hindu women from a poor neighborhood of Delhi are being given gifts deemed appropriate for young mothers, and taught Ayurvedic massage and exercises for healthy pregnancies. By indexing the presence of this Sanskritic scientific tradition (among India’s many systems of traditional medicine) in the nation’s care for its future citizens, Sen’s film made a poignant contrast between the protagonists of the film, women from the same neighborhood who have same-sex relationships, and India’s national ideal for its women citizens (heterosexual, married, childbearing and rearing, and Hindu). This national ideal draws power from the claim that this has always been the way gender, sexuality, family and reproduction operated in India — and Ayurvedic knowledge is here marshaled in support of that misrepresentation of the history of sexuality in ancient India.

The timescale of still and moving images stretches from antiquity to the present, in the Indian national context and others, like Egypt or Iraq, where national media reenforces ideas of the nation’s “golden age” — ideas with roots in British colonial historiography. Artists, including independent filmmakers, are working to complicate, subvert, or deconstruct representations of these national pasts, and as in the case of Kaul’s work, doing so by unravelling these authoritative images by estranging them, and by allowing us to look differently at them. This is also the work of the historian. I believe that our work as historians would be greatly enriched if we taught and thought with more films — not only archival films from the time periods and places that modern historians may teach about, but the work of artists engaged with the making and unmaking of history across much longer chronologies.

Watching these works made me realize that, in the US, contemporary artists do not often engage with the medieval or ancient visual cultures or representations of these lands we live on, with the important exception of many contemporary indigenous artists. This could have something to do with my inexperience, having encountered few works grappling with imaginaries of the pre-Columbian pasts of North America, like Karthik Pandian’s work on “Cahokia,” a massive city in what is now known as Illinois, inhabited continuously from 600-1350.[3] But I believe this has more to do with the settler colonial ideologies which sought to naturalize Europeans as the inhabitants of this land.

The ancient art engaged with and reimagined by most settler artists in the US was that of Europe, as if the land they live/d on did not have its own rich histories of art. Much of this pattern continues into contemporary art in the US, which has excluded those artists who invoke, recreate and continue Native American visual traditions. Though this work is produced now, people force this work into the past with the label of “traditional,” especially when this kind of work is done by Native artists. But the work of exposing the construction of settler colonial mythologies and erasures should not have to be the work of indigenous scholars and artists alone.

Perhaps one additional way that we can honor and engage with the work of Asian and other artists here in the US is to juxtapose works, to read contrapuntally, to think comparatively about our own artistic communities, and then to learn from — and act on — repairing the lacunae that this kind of comparative thinking may reveal. Especially so, when our nation’s understanding of its past has, since its founding, been so thoroughly imbued with unknowing and forgetting.

[1] More, at least, than I am accustomed to meeting in the elite academic spaces in the US, in which I first encountered experimental film.

[2] A filmmaker from Germany, Helga Fanderl, was also featured as one of the artists in this seminar. She has made thousands of films on a Super8 camera, many of which are quite short, abstract and were edited in-camera. She curates a program of her films for each and every venue in which her work is screened, and also insists on being there in person. I heard several attendees wonder about the role of her work, however lovely and skillful, in a seminar on the theme of Action. In the second-last session, she addressed this directly, and said of her films that they are what she feels she can contribute to a world being destroyed. She said that maybe artists should join demonstrations and support political work, rather than just making political art, much of which is quite shallow. This was met with applause.