On Against Ethnography

Posted by | Paris Jomadiao | Posted on | February 17, 2017

Vincent Carelli and Dominique Gallois, still from Meeting Ancestors, 1993. Courtesy of the Video Data Bank.

We are excited to present Against Ethnography, a program of contemporary videos from Latin America which charts the limits of communication between indigenous and non-indigenous worlds. Curated by film scholar Federico Windhausen, this program was originally put together as part of a larger series for the Oberhausen International Short Film Festival titled El Pueblo: Searching for Contemporary Latin America.

Ximena Garrido-Lecca, still from Contornos, 2014. Image courtesy of the artist.

To contextualize our screening, we’re featuring Windhausen’s essay for the El Pueblo series below.

Federico Windhausen is a film scholar and curator based in Buenos Aires. He has presented film programs at venues such as TIFF Bell Lightbox, the London Film Festival, the San Francisco Cinematheque, UnionDocs, and Anthology Film Archives. In 2014 he led the first Oberhausen Seminar, and in 2016 he curated the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen’s Theme program. His writing has been published in journals such as Moving Image Review & Art Journal.


El Pueblo
Searching for Contemporary Latin America

Federico Windhausen

In Latin American political discourse, the notion of el pueblo is a multidimensional one, referring to entities both extensive and reduced: the entire region, the people of a nation, the common people, and the village. Writing of the ‘heterogeneity of the concept of pueblo (…) a phenomenon that is hemispheric in scope but embedded locality’, one historian of Latin America has noted that ‘particular references to el pueblo may not correspond to a neat definition of that term, as either place or people or political abstraction’ (Paul Eiss: ‘In the Name of El Pueblo’, Duke University Press, 2010). For another historian, the term ‘blends notions of the people and the community in ways that makes it a common referent, often debated, and always changing.’ (John Tatino: ‘Communities Making Histories’, A Contracorriente, Winter 2012). It is a concept as frequently invoked as it is subject to recalibrations and resignifications.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the New Latin American Cinema endorsed el pueblo as an idea that could be used to mobilise revolutionary sociopolitical transformations. ‘Films, magazines, radio, and periodicals try to de-politicise el pueblo, to spread skepticism and escapism,’ announced Fernando Solanos and Octavio Getino in the first part of their militant classic The Hour of the Furnaces (1968), and some of the most influential and canonical cinema of the era saw itself as engaged in a vital struggle against false consciousness. But in the contemporary scene, long after the region’s transitions from authoritarian rule to contested democracies, this widespread and widely abused ideological rallying cry ‘Somos el pueblo’ (We are the people) no longer carries the same far-reaching impact or promise. It has been assimilated into a dense web of opposed perspectives, within which neither the ‘pink tide’ of leftist governments, the post-neoliberal center-right, nor grassroots movements (to name only three) have managed to enjoy a privileged and dominant influence on contemporary moving image cultures.

During the past ten years, however, the artist’s film in Latin America has deepened and diversified its ties to the social within varied political contexts. Faced with the shifting dynamics of conflicting rhetorical discourses, the most original and innovative work from the region has replaced the polemical and agitative declaration of collective identity with a series of questions, and exploratory project that asks: What is el pueblo? Can the grander constructs that it implies (Latin America, national identity) be illuminated or challenged by first narrowing its scope, so that a more generative point of departure can be the zone of the locality? (Brazil, of course has no equivalent Portuguese version of el pueblo. Nonetheless, the questions being raised by contemporary work from Latin America cut across both Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries, and the aesthetic tendencies these programmes showcase are especially pronounced in Brazil.)

This amounts to a shift in the terms of representation, away from the more ambitious, declamatory narratives offered by institutionally-entrenched political actors and mass media outlets, toward more microscopic and fragmented views of fraught issues such as urbanization, labour rights, and the legacies of colonialism. These films frequently circumvent – or, for much of their running time, suspend – any direct or explicit engagement with broad frameworks, whether ideological (such as neoliberalism or populism) or sensationalist (as in the reduction of major events to narratives of ‘crisis’), electing instead to emphasise individuals, small groups, and the particulars of architecture or geography, If ‘the people’ can be pinpointed and represented with any precisions, it is in the singular places and restricted sites where small-scaled developments and seemingly-minor stories occur. Such settings, which include the vast streets of Brasilia, the deep interior of the El Chocó rainforest region, Mexico’s high-tech factories, a mining town in the Andes, and the rural plantations of southern Paraguay, are more than backdrops – the contingent details we are shown carry meanings and connotations that have been shaped by each locale’s histories. These programmes suggest that an increasingly influential strain of work is responding to the adversarial ideological climate of the twenty-first century Latin America by asking us to look carefully at the behavioural, material, and environmental features of politically-charged micro-spaces.

In scaling down to the level of what is easily overlooked or marginalized, this body of work is not merely returning to more conventional and traditional modes of realism. While the films can produce the impression of proximity, generating a sense of physical nearness, of being in the vicinity of el pueblo, they also complicate their representations with the strategic use of ambiguity and elliptical structures, often employed to counter the many clichés of regional self-representation. Because we see effects but not their causes, our access and knowledge remains restricted. Because key events or factors are left outside the frame, so to speak, we are left to consider a series of questions about which historical, political, and cultural frameworks might be most relevant to what we have seen. Just as the term of pueblo allows for a fluid ambiguity between the locality, the nation and the entire region, a number of these films restrict themselves to one limited sphere of activity in order to shed light on other, larger arenas and formations. But such work can run the risk of appearing so vague or narrowly-cast that its links to specific political and cultured debates and dialogues become obscured. Not surprisingly there are film-makers who regard this misinterpretation as a necessary hazard, as the adverse outcome of a degree of ambiguity that is often intended to have multiple function and effects – internally, within each individual film, and externally, in the discourses generated by and about these films. One possible experiential upshot of the removing or withholding of contextual details from viewers if the fostering of intensified forms of spectatorial engagement, wherein the observation of equivocally motivated behavior or the close tracking of a tense situation can seem at once immersive and perplexing. One possible discursive consequence of these strategies is the rethinking of what counts as supplemental or background information (and when it counts); this can be seen as conceptual gambit and, in some cases, a demand directed at the audience.

There are other ways of accounting for the gaps and absences of this cinema, and in order to consider one especially valuable, alternative perspective, I refer to an extended moment of art-cinema revival that contributed to the changes tracked by these programmes. Analysing a wave of feature-length films from Argentina, to which the label ‘new’ had been attached by the early 2000s, film scholar Gonzalo Aguilar has argued that el pueblo gave way, in those films, to communities created ‘from fragmented parts’ and possessed of ‘identities that are never perceived as stable.’ (Gonzalo Aguilar: ‘New Argentine Cinema’, ReVista, Fall 2009). The ‘fragile’ communities of the New Argentine Cinema engage with politics as ‘negation (…) as impossibility, deficiency and even disorientation’, and this lack of direct involvement ‘make(s us ask about the very possibility of politics when certain traditional categories – like that of el pueblo – no longer are dynamic or effective.’ We can contrast, then, one of my earlier suggestions regarding semantic or contextual opacity – that it can be used to generate questions about which political positions a given film is addressing or developing – with Aguilar’s assertion that what is being called into questions is the very notion of a coherent or convincing mode of politics. The later is either a deeply skeptical view, which key films are said to embody, or it is only a partial forswearing, one that turns toward the primary of the local, affirming its value over and above national and transnational versions of el pueblo. In any case, Aguilar’s analysis offers another way of understanding the more enigmatic or difficult films included in the Theme.

If the films themselves seem at times to encourage interpretations that venture beyond what can be readily verified or found within the work itself, the curatorial propositions articulated alongside these programmes can be said to function in a similarly probing and speculative manner. This theme offers a selective map of sorts, one that connects work from locations far off and proximate, culturally and geographically, and it includes films (some of them quite short) that have been neglected within the most commonly-recognised circuits and networks of festival programming. But as these programmes trace a set of threads that run through films from disparate locates and sources, they also present work that deviates from these patterns. Included herein are films that take up the longstanding tradition of explicitly political ‘pamphleteering’, for example, and what emerges from their placement alongside less dogmatic shorts is a shared commitment to high degrees of formal and rhetorical fragmentation. Thus, what this provisional map sets out to chart are not only clusters of similar films, but illuminating contrasts as well. (In addition, there are countless genealogies to be discovered and constructed for this grouping of films, and the historical works included within these programmes offer clues for further research.)

It bears noting that much of this work responds to and further develops trends and tendencies that cut across global cultures of the moving image. Yet for the most part, on the geographic level, this Theme appears centripetally organised. And, indeed, these programmes are designed to tease out an intricate set of interrelationships – aesthetic, sociological, ideological, and so on – among works from circumscribed zones of cultural activity both familiar and unknown to the contemporary festival audiences. For the anti-regionalist, this would seem to run counter to contemporary curatorial inquiries into the relationships and structures suggested by terms such as the global South, which can be ‘understood not as a literal place but as a set of conditions, experiences, and affiliations that concern regions marginalized by the ongoing legacies of colonialism, Imperialism, and neoliberalism’ (Irene V. Small: ‘Videobrasil’, Artforum, January 2016)/ This is a heterogeneous formulation that offers rich curatorial possibilities, but this Theme programme advances another approach: as it provides a fairly exclusive platform for regionally specific practices and histories, it does so in a manner that suggests, through curatorial selections, framings, and juxtapositions, where those broader, shared ‘conditions, experiences, and affiliations’ might lie. If there were a single, distinctive curatorial method being explored in ‘El Pueblo: Searching for Contemporary Latin America’, it would be one that considers how the geographically centripetal and the discursively centrifugal might be productively combined.

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