Monday, July 25, 2011

Jane Evelyn Atwood, Photographs 1976-2010, Musée Européene de la Photographie

Continuing my theme of the marginalized at the mercy and manipulation of the authorities, I went to see Jane Evelyn Atwood retrospective at the Musée Européene de Photographie. The exhibition shows four of her main series, with a sprinkling of some of the “other” work.

Atwood's work belongs to the genre of photography that sits somewhere between photojournalism and art - the compositions are powerful, her use of light is clearly very staged and very expressive, and yet her task is, as one quotation from Tony Judt written on the wall announces: "to tell what is almost always an uncomfortable story and explain why the discomfort is part of the truth we need to live well." These are heavily stylized works that shed a light on stories that need to be told.

The most powerful series of work on display, by far, was that of women prisoners: Too Much Time. The series is compelling because they are photographs that can potentially change the world, and simultaneously, their subjects will never make peace with the world that has made who they are. Thus there is a tension in these works that has already left the victims of landmines, the blind, the prostitutes in other series. Atwood includes written commentary on the images of the women prisoners, commentaries that were moving, heartbreaking, telling the incredulous stories of the unfortunate women. However, I have to say, the story told by the photographs was different from that told by the text. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but at times the text detracted, perhaps because it had to for political reasons, from the skill and far more subtle power of the images. Where the images told of the coldness of the cell, the absolute discontinuity between the steel bars, the rigid lines and walls of the correction facility railing against everything we know of what it is to be a woman, the texts narrated the more one-dimensional injustice against the women.

While I found the textual commentary detracted from the power and complexity of the photographs, I still cannot get out of my mind one piece of information: the fact that most of the women in the prisons were there doing time for some kind of violence provoked by men, on behalf of men, or together with men. Atwood's point is that women are not inherently angry and violent, but that they have to be if they are to survive in a world driven by men. 

What is striking about the images is their depiction of an absence, the absence of a place for all of the things that girls growing up to be women learn along their way: what defines us and who we are: the magic of reproduction, being a mother, the vulnerability of being a woman in a male world, the adventures of femininity. These are women whose humanity is effaced, whose womanhood is denied, and whose femininity is erased without trace. And yet we can’t help but sense it, hovering in the slithers of light that illuminate them in Atwood's photographs. The conditions of incarceration are frightening, the clothes express nothing of who they are, the isolation captured through the lighting that creates just enough space to stay alive, but no more. 

One photograph shows four women’s arms, carved up by the destruction of their self-mutilation. Though it is not surprising that women would turn to cutting as a way of expressing themselves, the openness with which these women display their trauma is heartwrenching. In a world where their only option to regain control is to cut their bodies, with the only outlet for emotional turmoil being the violation of their own bodies, how else would they articulate their pain? And yet, because such scars of incarceration and maltreatment are usually kept hidden by those who self-harm, it’s shocking to see what these prisoners have been forced into.

In a nearby photograph, four young women lay their head on the shoulder of the next. It's the only image that comes close to capturing the humanity of women who have been brutally violated in everyway by the States that imprison them. And again, we are not surprised to learn that there's no difference between incarceration in Russia, North Carolina, Canada or southern France. In a world where globalization, the power of the international, transcultural and so on are routinely annexed by historians and cultural critics, one wonders why the brutality of this international phenomenon has not drawn more attention.

Even though I was drawn to the series on the women prisoners, I must mention Atwood’s ongoing project of photographing the blind. There is something delightful about these images, perhaps because of the way that the blind people, especially the children, behave in front of a camera. Atwood is quoted in one of the texts that accompany the photographs: “blind people don’t know how they look, want to look, or are afraid to look to others. They have none of those referents, and so don’t prepare themselves for the image. This lack of self-censorship often makes the pictures more interesting, if not necessarily easier to create.” What struck me about the images of the blind as Atwood caught them was their ease with themselves, their total acceptance of being seen and not seeing. The figures were playful, often caught in motion, and thus, giving a sense of physicality. Not only their own physicality but also, through the camera’s attention to touching — each other, a cat, braille script or and other objects — the tactility of their engagement with the world is extremely present to the camera.

There are many questions left unanswered by this exhibition, and I came away wanting answers. I wanted to know more about Atwood, what motivates her to photograph people on the edge, people who society has thrown away to rot on a garbage heap, people whose lives are deemed unremarkable or unworthy? I wanted to know her trauma. I wanted to know what draws her time and time again to those who have been wounded, broken even. I wanted to know how she managed to get inside the jails, the bedrooms, the playgrounds where she found the prisoners, the prostitutes and the blind. What makes her want to fight on their behalf? It's a strange question to be asking of a photographer because that's just the point, that the work should speak for itself. But there is nothing in these photographs or the accompanying texts that tells me why and how she went where she did with her camera. Atwood crosses a line and has access to worlds that most of us don’t even know exist, and because her presence on the other side of that line is so dominant in the photographs, it arouses intense curiosity.

Lastly, in a baffling contradiction of the apparent political intention of her photographs, Atwood threatens litigation against anyone who reproduces her work without permission. A strange stance for someone who claims to photograph in the name of justice. Nevertheless, compelled to observe her stringent directives, if you want to see more of her images of the incarcerated women in particular, you can do so at her website 

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Omar m'a tuer, dir. Roschdy Zem, 2011

On Wednesday night I saw the very touching film, Omar m’a tuer by Roschdy Zem. As a film it is rather heavy handed, but as a cry to rally against the racism and injustice of the French legal system, it works perfectly.

The case enjoyed a very high media and public profile here in France in the 1990s as well as in Morocco, but I was unfamiliar with it until the film was released. Omar was the Moroccan gardener of a society French lady who lived just outside of Cannes. She was found brutally murdered in the basement of her house with multiple stab wounds, 18 to be exact. The door had been barricaded from the inside by a collapsible bed and an iron bar. On the wall, in her own blood were written the words “Omar m’a tuer”. Omar had been framed. At least this is what the majority of French people and all of Morocco believed. But in an unforgiveable and unrelenting display of racism the French justice system has maintained otherwise. Omar Raddad was arrested, convicted, imprisoned on the basis of what was written on the wall.

The film shows Raddad’s grueling years in jail where he learnt to read and write, and from where he slowly started to comprehend the injustice of the accusations against him. When he was arrested in his home in 1991 following the murder, he was illiterate and spoke no French, and therefore, he had no idea of why he was being arrested, let alone imprisoned. This is lesson number one: if you are an Arab man and illiterate in France, your hole has been dug for you before the trial has even begun. The fiction film deals with his 7 years, alternating with the trial and the investigation of a writer who challenges the convictions and gathers evidence to prove Raddad’s innocence.

Every year on Bastille Day, the French President is given the authority to pardon a number of prisoners, not of their crimes, but of their sentences. In 1998 Chirac was pressured by King Hassan on a visit to Morocco to pardon Raddad. But a pardon in France does not mean an overturning of the conviction, and Raddad is still guilty of killing his employer in 1991 in the eyes of the law. The evidence supporting Raddad’s innocence is overwhelming, to the point where, the “Omar m’a tuer” supposedly written by the dying woman in her own blood is the only evidence against him. Even that, as every report on the case continues to point out, is worth little because it is ungrammatical and therefore unlikely to have been written by a highly educated white woman. She would no doubt have written “Omar m’a tué”. And why, as the writer (in the film Pierre-Emmanuel Vaugrenard) asks, would someone name their assassin in their dying moments rather than call for help?

For complicated reasons that could only hold force in the Napoleonic French Justice system, Raddad’s leverage to be absolved of the crimes is minimal to non-existent. But still he continues to fight to clear his name. And still the French Justice system refuses to hear and respect him. It’s difficult not to be enraged by the case because if racism rots the core of every country in a different way, this is how it happens in France: the authorities versus the people. As often happens in such high profile cases, Raddad represents much more than a Moroccan gardener shouldering the blame for an assassin on the loose. This is a cry for equality from all those immigrants who are treated without justice, condemned for no reason other than their race, in contemporary France. This is a very real struggle that weighs on the conscience of this country’s cultural imaginary, a struggle that is shared in by everyone, even those beyond the immigrant communities.

As I say, the film is not particularly interesting as a film, but its contempt, albeit subtly stated, for the French authorities that ensure the perpetuation of the conviction must be kept in the spotlight. The good news is that most French people, including the press, would agree with the film’s conceit. The fact that after a month playing in the cinemas, the 250 seats of the session I went to were sold, speaks to the heartache and solidarity felt by this country’s people. I could count on one hand the number of films whose run goes over two weeks in this city, and even the Academy Award winners are relegated to 11am and other unusual times of the day after their four week run. That Omar m’a tuer effortlessly pulls a full house every night of the week is the evidence that this story needs to be told again and again, in documentaries, in fiction, in the press, in images and writing, until there exists such a thing as equality in France.

For the full story see Anthony Davis, "Written in Blood" in Crime Story

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Rembrandt et la Figure du Christ, au Louvre

Harmensz van Rijn Rembrandt, Christ in Emmaus, c. 1628
This small exhibition is not groundbreaking; at least its proposition as an exhibition will be of no great revelation to anyone with even a fleeting knowledge of Rembrandt's painting. The premise is to demonstrate what we already know: that Rembrandt painted his Christ figures after "real life." The subtext that he was more interested in the representation of emotion than he was in biblical narratives is equally indisputable. Given the predictability of the exhibition narrative which is designed to give a context to one of the museum's treasures — Christ in Emmaus (c.1628) — I found myself skipping the context (the Louvre's own Mantegnas, Dürers, and so on) making a bee line for the Rembrandt paintings, prints and sketches. The great joy of any exhibition that includes no matter how many or few of Rembrandt's paintings is the inimitable experience of being in their presence. I want to say that it is as mesmerizing, surprising, awe-inspiring as is the presence of Christ to the disciples and pharisees in the paintings. I feel as though I am in the presence of something mystical, something that can't be explained, something that will change my life when I stand before a Rembrandt painting.
Harmensz van Rijn Rembrandt, Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, c. 1644
Like few other 17th century Dutch paintings, the brilliance of color as light has to be seen to be believed. Even if one were to see only one of Rembrnadt's paintings that are on display in this exhibition, it would could not be forgotten. The light that envisions Christ's appearance at Emmaus is so bright that it is blinding. As I stood at the entrance to the exhibition and saw this extraordinary work of art in the distance I was breathless: the power of the luminosity created through color as light painted 380 years ago can't be put into words. As it literally beamed across the 10ft wide gallery between me and it, I felt like St Matthew: called.
Harmensz van Rijn Rembrandt, Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus, 1648
And as we see again and again in these images, what matters to Rembrandt is not the background, the place, the details of the scene, what matters is the creation of light through color and, in turn, the illumination of a relationship between Christ and those to whom he appears. It is true in paintings such as Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery the fabric of the clothes is exquisite, and in Christ with Folded Arms, the hand expresses as powerfully as the face. But even in these paintings, the color as light that enables the detail is in tandem as the focus of the image. What's important in the scenes at Emmaus is not that no one is eating — afterall at this one above, there is no food on the table as the Bible would have it — but the moment of  revelation and recognition before the disciples. The awe and wonder of the disciples at Christ's appearance is fully imagined and enabled by the brightness of the light that emanates from him and enlightens their faces. Again and again, we see Rembrandt's fascination with that moment of appearance, and the challenge it poses to capture the impossible array of emotions from disbelief through surprise and awe.
Harmensz van Rijn Rembrandt, Head of Christ, c.1648-56
The blurb on the wall at the Louvre claims the mystery and ambiguity of this portrait of Christ lies in his look, in the uncertainty of the narrative that surrounds him. But as I have said before, what is mysterious about this, one of his most famous representations of Christ is something wholly different. For me, the mystery lies in Rembrandt's ability to create an image that is so inconceiveably perfect. The exhibition included many images by followers which was instructive. Because each and every attempt to do what Rembrandt had done was impoverished. Whatever it is, there is always something that the follower and the student do not manage to capture. In the Rembrandt portraits everything comes together so perfectly: the soft silken skin, the intense, sad gentle eyes that are both soft and very powerful. Likewise the eyes on Rembrandt's figures look inwards lost contemplation and at the very same time follow our every move around the museum. Other painters were never quite able to imitate the composition, the distance of the figure within the frame, and of course, the balance and intensity of light that is the energy and magic of Rembrandt's canvases. If Christ's image is iconic today, it is surely the light to which we are drawn, which we are called to worship?
Harmensz van Rijn Rembrandt, Christ with Folded Arms, c.1657-61

Monday, July 4, 2011

Robert Sklar (1936-2011). What I learnt

Bob Sklar at Orphans

As I reflect on the life and work of one of the founders of Cinema Studies as an academic discipline, I remember the uniqueness of his influence on me and my work. But I have to admit, as teachers go, Bob was not such a great pedagogue. His quiet, often reticent presentation of material was, at the time I sat in his classroom, often frustrating. I often used to wonder “why are we reading this?” or “what does he want us to see in this?” In what I would in time recognize as one of the most formative classes I took at NYU, in Bob Sklar’s historiography class we spent a semester reading Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge and The Order of Things. Simultaneously, each week we would see an American film made in 1974. That was it. There was some mention of Watergate, and odd references to its reverberations in American society. From time to time we would read an article or a book that took certain historiographical turns. As naive and supercilious NYU students we always knew better than the author of the article or book, and in his quiet way, Bob would smile and say something as brief as “it’s historically important for its place within the development of film history.” Of course, there was no explicit connection of dots in Bob’s classes. The point was that as a group, together or individually, we would discover connections that had not previously been realized. I may not have grasped the significance of those classes at the time, but in the years since, have never stopped thinking about the rich historiographical possibilities opened up by those juxtapositions.

I am not an Americanist, and never will be, but I took Bob’s classes because he was the one who wrote Movie-Made America. And I believed him when he wrote in his now canonical essay, “Oh Althusser!” that history and theory belonged together. Bob was an historian first and foremost, but he was smarter than the average historian. Because he knew about cinema, and he brought history to the study of the cinema for the first time. Bob always impressed on us the importance of having “an intervention” into whatever intellectual field we chose to work. Coming from the man who brought the writing of history together with the study of the cinema, he had reason to challenge us. And then in 1990 with the publication of Resisting Images, he and Charlie Musser’s collection changed the course of cinema history as Bob had begun it. Together they called for a theoretically inflected history of the cinema.

In the professionalized world of academia today, to get a job in the humanities, we have to have a pedagogical theory. And yet, one of my most influential teachers never really appeared to have a theory. Bob came into the classroom, introduced us to what he thought was interesting, often didn’t know how the different elements fit together —and indeed, they didn’t always—and in doing so he created a playing field on which learning and thinking became exciting.

We are now in another era, and one which, in so many ways, comes to a close with Bob’s death. There are many of us out there who carry his legacy in diverse and unexpected ways. In addition to everything else Bob passed on a love of and interest in American film that I for one have nurtured over the years. I would never look at a film by the likes of Terrence Malick, Sam Peckinpah, and the list goes on, in the same way again. Bob had impeccable taste in and an acute discernment of film. While the marriage of theory and history in my own work is founded on Bob’s thinking, he has a list of students, many of whom have gone on to have extraordinary careers, others whose work bears much a much more obvious stamp of Bob’s wisdom than mine. Interestingly, not one of them has replicated Bob’s work, but rather, they have all built reputations and careers on a perspective and approach to film history that is their own. Indeed, it is the uniqueness of even his less illustrious students’ work that reflect Bob’s enormous impact on cinema studies today: the inimitability of his “intervention” has been an example rather than a forumula for us to find our own intellectual positions as historians of the cinema.

Above all, his generosity as a thinker and his gentle good nature as a person were a joy to us all.

We will miss him