Category Archives: Reviews

films, books, TV etc that affected me, good and bad

Putting participation in ethnographic film

I’ve been watching a lot of recently produced ethnographic films, either shot in the Asia-Pacific, or produced by its citizens, in the context of the forthcoming Aperture Film Festival. It has been interesting to note how conservative most of the films are – a very old-fashioned relationship between the ethnographer/filmmaker/anthropologist is acted out with the ‘subject’, who rarely has any dialogue with the film-maker, or any control over the object that s/he is making. Many of these films feel exploitative. The ‘subject’ seems to make the film-maker a gift of her/his life with no gain from the process at all. Furthermore, whether the subject would actually agree with her or his representation is quite unclear. The initial act of generosity is perhaps compounded by the subject’s often apparently limited understanding of the cultural and academic context of ethnographic film. Often filmed in an observational style, dialogue between subject and film-maker is usually poorly represented in the film, if it existed at all. However, there were some notable exceptions.

Whether we’ll be able to sing or not, we’ll be there because you’ve recorded it.

Indian film-makers Anjali Monteiro and KP Jayasankar have made a series of films over the last decades, including Naata (The Bond) (2003), Do Din Ka Mela (A Two-Day Fair) (2009) and So Heddan So Hoddan (Like Here Like There) (2011). The last is my favourite, although all are good. A beautifully shot, slow-paced meditation contemporary Sufi culture as it has been handed down and lived as everyday experience among the Jatts of Gujarat. The film makers show the subjects discussing among themselves the reasons to make the film; at times the subjects become the interviewers. In the other films, we watch the subjects viewing the film-makers’ footage. The result is not only a moving and beautiful film, but one in which the subjects appear to take ownership of the project, as they proselytise and philosophise about their place in the world. It’s a hard life, but one tempered by inestimable beauty and a deeply felt religious mythology.
The following two works embrace the participatory principle more explicitly, but in very different ways.

Still from We Want (U) To Know

Still from We Want (U) To Know

We want (u) to know, by Ella Pugliese and Nou Va (2009) and subtitled ‘remembering in the time of the Khmer Rouge Trial, Cambodia’. Cambodian villagers interview each other about the Khmer Rouge period. A boy interviews his grandma while his school mates look on, they even re-enact atrocities. Is it cathartic? I don’t know – perhaps not. But the villagers are very willing and excited about participating – to the extent that they proposed the idea of the re-enactments. At night the villagers watch the rushes under a tree in the village square, a festive atmosphere. They want to bear witness, but their attitude to vengeance is tempered by their Buddhism, and a historical perspective on the dubious outcomes of retaliation. The confused hope of the young generation, who have trouble understanding their country’s brutal past, is confronted by the usually silent despair of the older generation.

To remember the Khmer Rouge is a painful thing, yet it is an essential step for our country”

Although to a large extent produced by amateurs, the production values do not suffer as a result.

Still from Stori Tumbuna

Still from Stori Tumbuna

Stori tombuna (2011) is also a radically participatory film, although you wouldn’t know it from the first few minutes. Spoiler alert! Set up as a conventional anthropological film, it is not until the final scenes until we understand the full extent of the Papuan tribe’s penchant for playing jokes – and in this instance, the whole film is a very sophisticated joke, as we are duped by the tribes sophisticated story-telling. A plotline worthy of Calvino, it encapsulates a critique of traditional anthropology and ethnographic film making, but not at the expense of great story-telling. The director, Paul Wolffram, can be applauded for his willingness to immerse himself in the Papuan world, and collaborate with them in this great film.
There are many ways to be participatory, and none of the above use social media. My own developing project, Wherever I lay my hat, uses Instagram, Twitter and (hopefully when it is complete) a comment function, to creative a more inclusive project around the theme of living globally.


We want (u) to know (2009) Dir. Ella Pugliese, Nou Va and the people of Thnoi Lok, Cambodia (2011)
So Heddan So Hoddan (Like Here like there) (2009) Dirs. Anjal Monteiro and K P Jayasankar. Kutch, Gujarat, India (58 mins) http/
Stori Tombuna Dir. Paul Wolffram (2011) (1 hour 29 minutes)

Everything old….

Check this music video by Cyriak Harris for Bonobo – the aesthetics and ethics of repurposing old stuff seems to have got a shot in the arm in our sustainability-conscious era, but this takes recycling to a whole new level.

What can we say it means, except that humans are repetitive creatures, and somewhat like machines? The percussive soundtrack lends its weight to the mechanical aura of the piece. Toaster production lines, women endlessly folding the same thing, girls on treadmills. Monstrous War-of-the-worlds machinalia stride across a horizon that is implanted with more infrastructure with every stride, but even the feet themselves are comprised of Small Domestic Acts.

Is the retro-ness meant to suggest Things Are No Longer This Way? Maybe Fordism has been relegated to the second world, and we can look down upon this imagery from our post-industrial, post-human heights, with a heady mix of superiority and nostalgia.

Or maybe my meandering thoughts are an example of interpretation gone wild, a la Susan Sontag’s prognostications? Or maybe a warning to be wary of the signifiers that we set up?

Whatever it means, a damn good music video.

Sontag, Susan (1964) Against Interpretation. Penguin Books.

Taken for a ride, 2

Got home last night, pretty beat after two days’s intensive teaching, so I dialled up Apple TV, which has a very limited selection of movies to choose from, mainly B grade (but much better for TV). Anyway, I chose, to my regret, Taken 2 (Dir. Luc Besson, starring Liam Neeson). Pretty sure Neeson knows how bad it is. But it’s the editing style, known as intensified continuity, which is taken to extremes in this movie and really got on my nerves. Split-second cuts in the action scenes, which makes you think that the protagonists’ fists aren’t really coming anywhere near each other, so they’re using editing to cover up the gap. I remember one brilliant, breath-taking moment in which a single take is allowed to rest on an air-borne car before it crashes. Completely restful. Then on the with show…

Anyway, it reminded me of this video essay by Matthias Stork.

Stork argues that the techniques of ‘chaos cinema’ extend beyond the editing into camerawork and CGI integration.

It’s a shotgun aesthetic, firing a wide swath of sensationalistic technique that tears the old classical film-making style to bits.

These directors’ bi-word is spectator disorientation, to the extent of narrative break-down. “The only art here is the art of confusion”, Stork argues. Intelligibility – such as it is – is derived from the soundtrack. The sound design saved these movies.

Stork goes on to illustrate how the techniques of chaos cinema extend to other genres, and inhibit the actor’s ability to communicate. I’m wondering whether a lot of the transmedia phenomenon is an extension fo chaos cinema – a profusion of media in which order is threatened, the spectator is meant to piece it together, sometimes rather impressionistically.

Narrative will never be threatened, only projects that fail to strike a balance between the chaos aesthetic and narrative convention. What drives people to wade through the chaos to make sense? It must be the core narrative values of character, drama, location, etc.

the object of desire is always in the distance

Marcel Proust, as pointed out by de Botton, Alain (1997). How Proust can change your life. Picador, p. 183.

The most hopeless of emotions, for it can never can be satisfied ? Or a drive that makes us try to be better ? Or both at once, the paradox of desire: without it, we’d be pigs; even possibly murderers … But with it, we are condemned to a life of frustration. A great insight from Proust, which once I read, but now can only glimpse via clever redactions, from a great distance….

death of a starlet

arbuckleHaving just watched enough of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Bablyon to get the gist, I thought the least I could do was digitally memorialise Virginia Rappe, the starlet murdered by silent-screen comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle with his weight while savagely raping her.

Year: 1921.
Place: San Francisco.

Virginia, you were a beautiful girl. I don’t really recommend this doco. There’s something sick about being obsessed with this sick stuff.

[still from Hollywood Babylon, reprocessed]


supermaxPrison valley, an interactive documentary about the America prison system focusses on the supermax prison in the Colorado desert. It is a surprisingly narrative driven work, given it functions in an interactive environments, its structure seems somewhat inspired by gameplay. You are caught up with the highly professionally produced story-telling and the characters of the indidivudals who deal with the prison.

Although this project has plenty of rich interactive elements, it has no UGC, nor the ability of users to add content beyond a forum. It is driven by strong storytelling, great characters, and wonderful imagery enhanced sensitively with a great audio track. An expository voice over is slightly softened because the directors have put their own actions in the frame, however really the things that make this docoumentary so strong are its conventional elements.

So I love this documentary, but really, I love you conventionally.

[image: still from Prison Valley – as close as you can get to the supermax]

One Millionth Tower – review

Screen Shot 2012-11-27 at 4.27.19 PM

According to Angela Watercutter on Wired, One Millionth Tower by Katerina Cizek, Mike Robbins + friends:

…was carefully crafted to be watched on the internet. It uses interactive tools to illustrate the Toronto residents’ ideas about how to improve the decaying high-rise in which they live. Powered entirely by HTML5, WebGL, and other open source JavaScript libraries, One Millionth Tower is loaded with photos and information from all over the web, and exists in an online environment that is about as close to three-dimensional as something on a flat screen can get.

“We’ve added an entire new layer to the web and One Millionth Tower is one of the first examples of that,” said Mark Surman, executive director of the Mozilla Foundation, the force behind the Popcorn.js toolkit that powers the film. “In the same way we all got really excited when you could highlight a word on a page and create a hyperlink … that’s happening now with film. I think of this as the first real web-made documentary.”

The resulting film is unlike any before it. It can be watched without much interaction, but it’s much more fun to play with it (see “How to Watch This Movie” at right). Some aspects change even without viewer input: For instance, the time of day and weather in the film change based on actual conditions in Toronto….

The interactive movie is chock-full of photos from Flickr, street-views from Google Maps and changing environments fueled by real-time weather data from Yahoo. Everything is triggered by Popcorn.js, which acts like a conductor signaling which instruments play at what times.

This documentary can never be the same on two viewings, no matter how carefully you try to retrace your steps, because the data it pulls in is always evolving. It doesn’t make great use of UGC, but it could, the principle is there. The data being pulled in is quite well integrated too.

So well done them, this may indeed represent a future direction for participatory documentary.

how to distribute online comics

According to Sean Edgar & Hillary Brown,

The biggest challenge for webcomics authors isn’t just providing captivating content, but letting the public know it exists. Every binary nook and cranny hides an amazing amount of talent that could very well be published by any major comic hub, which unsurprisingly, has been happening quite a bit lately.

In this post, I analyse various ways of distributing comics online with a view to my own possible project with colleague Christine Rogers.

Three Word Phrase by Ryan Pequin has its own blog and asks for donations via a Paypal Tip Jar.

Saturday morning breakfast cereal by Zach Weiner has an online shop attached to their site.

Cyanide & Happiness by Kris Wilson, Rob DenBleyker, Matt Melvin, and Dave McElfatrick has advertising on its site, plus an online shop

Girl Genius by Kaja Foglio, Phil Foglio, and Cheyenne Wright has a Paypal donate button and a shop and online advertising. They also publish hardcopy versions.

Penny Arcade by Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik have an online shop, mostly clothing based on their designs

Girls With Slingshots by Danielle Corsetto have their own shop, but also sell through Etsy, and their have onsite advertising.

Stop Paying Attention by Lucy Knisley has a shop and a paypal donate button.

The Oatmeal by Matthew Inman has an online shop.

These are all fantastic comics, but I’m thinking it must be pocket money only.

[thanks to Paste magazine]

Constantinople is collapsing

PressPausePlay (free bittorrent download) is a documentary about freedom and digital creativity. Most of the examples are from the music ‘industry’. Rahrahs from the likes of Seth Godin are balanced by the dour warnings of Andrew Keen.

This doco contains the bones of the controversy over UGC, whose major critic is Andrew Keen:

When you fall into the trap of confusing the artist and the audience, when you believe that the audience knows more than the artist, is more authoritative, is more creative, is more talented, then art ends. Then you have something else, you have cacophany, you have simply an apology for radical democratisation, and it’s wrong to confuse democratisation in cultural and political terms with the creation of art, which is by definition for better or worse, an elitist business.

I have trouble with the logic of Keen’s argument. If the audience thinks they are better than the artist, they surely wouldn’t be there? And anyway, what does he mean by ‘art’? He seems to be referring to types of creative practice that have been validated by ‘experts’, and even if you think that this is what art is, there doesn’t seem to be any way for new artists to become validated. He doesn’t give any room for discovery or development. Intead, he offers a psychologised explanation of the makers of UGC:

In our post-industrial age, because of atomisation, loneliness, because of the brak-up of community, the way to somehow reify or deify ourselves is through the creative act.

Are there no other reasons for creativity than therapy? What about the desire to communicate? An interest in aesthetic and technical experimentation? The transition to ‘serious art’ seems to be entirely magical if it is meant to develop from Keen’s idea of non-successful art.

Raw popularity – ‘number of clicks’ – is not the criteria for art, in Keen’s opinion, presumably because we are meant to let experts judge art and we are meant to follow that judgement? Keen seems to remove any right of individuals to form their own critical opinion. Once again, this leads us into a cul-de-sac in which aesthetic criteria can never develop, and art is reified into heritage forms forever.

The other thing that Keen doesn’t appear to understand is how we find things on the web – through use of our networks, metadata and referrer systems, and private networked which Alexis Madrigal calls the dark social.

However, the note of foreboding Keen sounds when he declares us to be ‘on the verge of a new dark age’ can not altogether be ignored. Moby, for example ponders whether ‘people might start to become comfortable with mediocrity’. The digital revolution has:

…separated, to an extent, knowledge of cract and creativity, it’s like to be a good photography you had to know how to develop your own film, to print your own film, and you had to understand the way the camera worked and now that doesn’t matter.

Someone else (apologies, I missed the name) comments ‘The craft is no longer necessary. The craft of writing or the craft of making art or the craft of the musician is gone’ because everything can all be fixed in post. The price is that any idiosyncracy in performance can be removed and what remains is sterile precision.

Moby concludes:

I get intimidated and bored by perfect digital art.

Another sort of critique about contemporary music culture is that digitality and sharability of music has made it ubiquitous, we don’t concentrate on it so much, it’s just ‘the noise of our lives’. But whatever is happening, it sure is interesting. This digital moment is analogous to the 1920′s, when TV, radio – the heritage media era – was beginning to take off. Nobody knew what would happen, but the results have been playing out over the last eighty years.

As one interviewee says, we’re all operating in the dark. it depends on whether you think this is exciting or devastating.

[This is one of two posts written about PressPausePlay. Here’s the other. Still from PressPausePlay.]

operating in the dark

PressPausePlay (free legal bittorrent download) is an uplifting and informative documentary about freedom and digital creativity. Most of the examples are from the music ‘industry’. Rahrahs from the likes of Seth Godin are balanced by the dour tones of Andrew Keen.

Is the status of creativity and creatives changing? In this wide-ranging documentary, we are asked to reflect upon the creatives ‘industries’, and consider whether changing production methods means that we are entering a post-industrial creative era. Some love it, some hate it, and some, most interestingly, are equivocal. Among the more or less fully converted is Seth Godin:

It used to be you didn’t become an artist to be rich, you became an artist because you had an idea to share, you had an emotion to share, and that’s where we’re heading again, and we’re going to see more people do more art in more ways than ever before.

Yes, but how? And what are the financial practicalities? And is it really ‘art’? In an environment in which ‘Any kid can use a cracked version or buy a version of Reason or Logic or Ableton and in about five minutes do what took 6 months or years 20 years ago’, Moby wonders:

Everybody’s equally excited and afraid, noone really knows where their next paycheck is coming from, but they’re really excited at their ability to create work and communicate directly with an audience.

These people are technological determinists. Bill Drummond says: ‘The technology always comes first. Then the artist comes along (Jimi Hendrix) … And abuses it and changes it …. So in that sense technology is great. I’m not so sure it’s as simple as that, for in the use and abuse the technology gets changed, but anyway, that’s perhaps not the most important issue. Rather, it’s what digital does to the very concept of art and media. According to David Weinberger:

In the creative world, it used to be that we knew where to go to get art, where to get entertainment, and they were in boxes, sometimes the boxes were Tv boxes, sometimes they were building boxes or the front page of newspaper which is a nice little box. That’s fantastic but of course there’s a price to pay to that old way as well, which is that somebody else is making your decisions and they are also human beings, its’s a very limited necessarily range of tastes and opinions and ideas and traditionally unfortunately fairly typically its been representative of particular empowered groups… Typically white guys …

I’m not sure art is a good term to use with digital products. It seems to me tied to a means of production and a historical production period in which reproducability was difficult if not impossible. So when Seth Godin says something like:

Art has been round for a really long time, but its only in the last fifty years that there’s been an industry, eg the music indusy, the movie industry. That’s new.

I just wish he’d use a less loaded phrase, such as ‘creative products’. It would avoid a whole lot of problems. That aside, I love the way several interviewees historically contextualise our creative period.

PressPausePlay also interviews the founders of production company Shilo, Andre Stringer and Tracy Chandler:

Andre Stringer:

The easiest way to understand Shilo is we’re a traditional production company for the most part, but we’ve come at it from a very untraditional sort of way. The traditional model says, there’s a director, there’s a post house, there’s an editorial company, there’s an advertising agency… And each of them has their own stake in what they’re making and there’s always this fight against it. By…harnessing all those things and saying like nowadays the guys who direct are sometimes the guys who design, the guys who direct are also sometiems the dudes who edit. That blended model really changes the whole landscape and it also sort says that anybody can do anything.

They must have worked out how to deal with egos very well … in industrial media, everyone likes to have their patch of expertese. Or is it more that that’s how we learned to function? It was safe, maybe even easy, maybe even necessary given the gear we had. But it didn’t give you much freedom unless you were at the top of the tree.

Tracy Chandler:

If a designer comes at directing something they might have a different approach than a traditional director might have and so comes out with a different product . It’s not just about whether something is better or worse, its about something can be different because people are coming at it from a different perspective.


What having the ability to do more of the work ourselves gives us is the abili to be more free, more visceral, more alchemic with the way that the components come together. A lot less of it has to be extremely pre-planned and mo of it can be entirely improvisational, very much of the moment…Most of it comes out of the grassroots, learn-it-yourself, do-it-yourself mentality


There’s no formal training for what’s going on in the professional world right now.

[This is one of two posts written about PressPausePlay. Here’s the other. Still from PressPausePlay.]