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Destruction and Defiance in “Annihilation” and “A Quiet Place”

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The first scene in “Annihilation” shows a college classroom viewing a cancer cell  — something that causes its host to morph and change beyond recognition. That theme is picked up through the rest of the movie, with unsettling conclusions. Based on the award-winning series of sci-fi horror novels of the same name by Jeff Vandermeer about the inability of the human mind to comprehend an alien intelligence, it was always going to be hard to depict on screen. It follows the actual plot of the book very loosely (full disclosure, I haven’t read the book), telling the story of Johns Hopkins biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) grieving the unexplained disappearance of her special forces husband Kade (Oscar Isaac) over a year prior. But suddenly he appears at her door, dazed and seemingly empty. It is unclear if he even recognizes Lena, but before she can begin to understand what’s wrong, he collapses. As they rush to the hospital, they are suddenly whisked away by an armed government force, with Lena forcibly sedated. She wakes in a facility known as the Southern Reach, a United States facility observing a section of Gulf coastline enclosed in a mysterious expanding bubble called the Shimmer. The Reach has tried everything — drones, vehicles, military teams — but nothing comes back out, and no communication penetrates the Shimmer. That is, until whatever is left of Kane emerges. Lena, still grief-stricken and confused over what happened to Kane, is persuaded by the enigmatic Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to join her all-female team of scientists in another expedition into the Shimmer.

Once in the Shimmer, nothing is as it seems. Time jumps forwards and slows down, and it soon becomes clear that something strange and terrible is occuring in the swampy southern forest. Alligators with shark teeth and flowers that seem strangely humanoid point toward an ecosystem running on overdrive, genes constantly scrambled and rearranged towards a cacophonic crescendo. The mental state of the team is similarly deteriorating; as the movie slowly makes clear that one would have to seriously want to escape one’s own life to go on a mission like this, while the expeditions members have an apparent inability to cope with what they are facing. Strong supporting performances from Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, and Tessa Thompson help build the aura of paranoia and fear. And the reasons for Lena’s determination to push further and discover what happened to Kane are gradually revealed in effective flashbacks.

“Annihilation” suffers from poor pacing. The middle of the movie, while sometimes terrifying, can wallow in atmosphere instead of driving the plot forward. What become most compelling are the explorations of Lena and Ventress’s motivations for pushing towards their goal: finding the lighthouse where the Shimmer spread from. Early in the film, Ventress, a psychologist, references the human capacity for self destruction. While the disturbing wildlife of the Shimmer could be read as a metaphor for the costs of environmental disaster which humans have barely begun to reckon with, the main thrust of the film is more personal. In the almost inexplicable final half hour, Lena discovers the source of the Shimmer and  what happened to Kade. It is the scariest use of special effects I have seen in years, not in a conventional horror way, but in how it awes you with its strangeness. The slow destruction of the identities of Ventress, Lena, Kade, and the rest evoke the horror of personal change, of gradually and unwillingly becoming a person you barely recognize, face to face with your own annihilation.

John Krasinski’s directing debut, “A Quiet Place,” is not nearly as high concept as “Annihilation,” but has a few gimmicks, as well as political baggage, that make it interesting. On the one hand, it’s simply an entertaining monster film. Lean and quickly paced, it follows the struggle of a family to survive in a world where speaking aloud, crunching leaves underfoot, or rolling dice can bring certain death. The monsters, you see, are blind but possessed with astonishing hearing. Grotesque, massive eardrums allow them to instantly zero in on noise from miles away and attack relentlessly. Opening with the death of Lee (Krasinski) and Evelyn Abbot’s (Emily Blunt) youngest son after he plays with a noisy toy space shuttle, the main conflict is Evelyn’s pregnancy and the efforts of the Abbotts to keep a (noisy) baby safe in their world.

The main achievements of the film are the inventive set and sound design. The family can’t use plates (they clink), must walk on trails made of sand (leaves crunch), and play Monopoly with felt pieces (in this film, the top hat and the steamboat are agents of death). Dreamy, light-filled cinematography shows the beauty and fragility of the life the Abbots have carved out. And the bare soundtrack leaves plenty of space for the tension built into the film’s premise: the constant fear of ordinary, previously safe sounds that now lead to violent death. The structure of the Abbot’s world has changed, not beyond sanity or recognition like it does for Lena, but enough that the basic framework of ordinary home life is irreparably altered.

On the other hand, “A Quiet Place” is interesting because of what people are reading into it. According to Krasinki, it was conceived as a simple metaphor for him and his wife’s (who is Emily Blunt on and off-screen) love for their children and the fear and determination to protect that come with parenting. Undeterred, voices on the left and right have seen something else in the movie. The New Yorker’s always-baffling Richard Brody criticizes “A Quiet Place” for its “regressive politics” of a white, gun-toting rural family battling against dark monsters who stifle their speech. And the hilariously contrarian Armond White of Out and National Review lauds its “pro-gun and pro-life themes,” as well as what he sees as representation of Hollywood culture of outrage and censorship. Personally, the cultural issue that I found most intriguing was whether Krasinski could ever escape his role as Jim in The Office. In retrospect, obviously not.

Anyways, I highly doubt that John Krasinski, of all people, meant to make a conservative political critique in this film. If you choose to see it as a reactionary stand against progressives, then do so, though I think that takes jumping through more than a few mental hoops. And if you choose to see a family deciding to bring life into a difficult and dangerous existence as pro-life, you’re probably right in the broadest sense. But this is a horror movie, first and foremost. The main reactions should be screaming and flinching, not political takes.

The sci-fi horrors of both movies are refreshing and original contributions to the dead space between awards season and summer movies. Both show humans struggling to grapple with a radical shift in their reality. In one the threat is literally on a cellular level and inescapable; in the other the terror comes from more conventional monsters. “Annihilation” will leave you chewing over its ending and trying to shake pervasive unease — “A Quiet Place” leaves you with an immensely satisfying final shot after a solid 100 minutes of scares.

“La Haine” and Racialized Nation-building

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Two weeks ago, I watched the French film “La Haine” directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, which was released in the fall of 1995. The title translates to “Hate” in English. Kassovitz won Best Director at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival for the film, which features a throbbing French hip-hop score and grimy black-and-white cinematography. “La Haine” occurs during the violent unrest of the Algerian Civil War, in which systematically oppressed minorities rioted against a militaristic police force and against a society of nations that relied on racialized marginalization for ruling power.

In France, the summer of 1995 was violent and traumatic. France was beset by a series of shootings and bombings, which were connected to the Algerian Civil War and executed by Muslim groups who opposed the Algerian and French governments. The worst of the incidents occurred on July 25, when a gas bottle exploded at the Saint-Michel metro station, killing eight and injuring 117, and on August 17, when a bomb exploded at the Arc de Triomphe, injuring 16. The violent incidents continued into the fall of 1995.

The Algerian Civil War began in December 1991 when the popular Islamic Salvation Front party, or F.I.S., challenged the ruling National Liberation Front party in the national parliamentary elections. When first-round results forecast an F.I.S. victory, the N.L.F government cancelled the election citing fears that the F.I.S. would end democracy. The Algerian government banned the F.I.S. and arrested thousands of F.I.S. members, which impelled the formation of Muslim groups that began an armed campaign against the government. The conflict cost between 150,000 and 200,000 lives and ended with an Algerian government victory.

Between 1830 and 1870, France colonized Algeria through military rule. In 1962, the Algerian War of Independence, a decolonization war between French and Algerian — N.L.F. — military forces, ended with Algerian independence. After ceasefire, the N.L.F massacred Muslim Algerians who had served the French military and whom the French had denied repatriation to France.

The violence Algerian Muslim carried out against France in 1995 was a response to French governmental support of the N.L.F government and its military force.

The history of Algerian colonization is filled with racialized hypocrisies and the systematic and intersectional oppression of Muslims by French and Algerian ruling powers. The conflict between French, Algerian, and Algerian and French Muslim peoples is an example of the violent means and ends of racialized nation-building. The nation is a man-made geographic and sociopolitical structure. The nation is established upon the presumption of racial superiority, which is often white superiority, and the national systematic oppression of racialized peoples who are often called minorities and second-class citizens.

Before I continue, I must note two shortcomings.

First, I detailed a brief and incomplete history in order to discuss the process of racialized nation-building (I use the term racial and not ethnic, because ethnicities are often racialized). While it is possible to point out errors and inaccuracies in my account, I believe the process of racialized nation-building has repeatedly occurred as a pattern in numerous places and moments throughout history.

Second, I identify as a white, heterosexual, cis-male, Jewish American. I am writing from the perspective of someone who is privileged by not only American, but also Western cultural, political, and economic systems. I welcome critical feedback on the ways in which my thoughts are filtered by my perspective.

In Algeria, the French, operating under the presumption of their racial superiority, imposed the geographic and sociopolitical nation of Algeria upon groups of people who likely did not perceive the world as a map divided and governed by nations. The French believed they understood a better reality than the people who lived on the land the French called Algeria, which provides evidence of another belief: the French presumption of the racial inferiority of the peoples upon whom they imposed the nation of Algeria.

While the National Liberation Front won Algerian independence in 1962, they won the rights to a nation that was and is composed of racialized institutions, systems, and beliefs. In order to govern the nation of Algeria, the N.L.F. needed to shift the militaristic oppression which fuels the nation and its institutions to another ethnic group. On the day of independence, the N.L.F perpetrated massive violence against Muslim minorities in order to maintain the racialized nation and its systems. Furthermore, in 1991, the N.L.F instituted military rule in order to prevent Muslim governance in order to prevent the end of their democratic nation, a nation which relied on the violent interplay between superior and inferior racialized groups.

When Muslim groups attacked the French, they perpetrated violence against a power which maintained their systematic oppression. While the concept does not justify violence, it complicates the ways in which we consider terrorist attacks because, while perhaps under different names and guises, the violent patterns of racialized nation-building decorate the pages of Western history.

While I will be brief, I would also like to extend an understanding of racialized nation-building to include the United States of America. The U.S.A. was founded upon the presumption of white European superiority and the murder of Native American peoples and the enslavement of black peoples. While complex, Native American genocide and black slavery are both fundamentally connected to the founding of the American nation which created racialized systems of oppression that exist today. Structural American ideas were established upon the presumption of white male superiority and the oppression of racialized groups. For example, the infamous “All men were created equal.” In the modern day, the incarceration of millions of black people is the most visible institutional remnant of racialized nation-building of America.

The concept of the nation is racialized. Therefore, the institutions and systems which compose and maintain the nation are racialized.

I believe racialized nation-building is a product of weakness. We failed to do the hard work of empathy. We refused to understand the reality of others. We allowed our fear to become hateful violence.

“La Haine” is about three friends. Vinz is Eastern European Jewish, Saïd is Arab Muslim, and Hubert is black African; the friends are members of three groups who have been subjugated to the violent oppression of racialized nation-building throughout history.

They are children of immigrant families that live in in an impoverished French housing project in the suburbs of Paris, called la banlieue. The film depicts 20 successive hours in the lives of the three young men as they navigate the aftermath of a riot in which the police attacked their friend. They wander aimlessly through la banlieue, joking and arguing in search of distraction and entertainment. The friends find themselves subject to police surveillance which spreads hateful conflict through their home.

Vinz is filled with hate. He sees himself as an urban gangster. He imagines himself as Travis Bickle, from the 1976 American film “Taxi Driver” directed by Martin Scorsese; he aims a finger-gun at the mirror, and scowls. Hubert is musing and thoughtful. He contemplates la banlieue, wanting only to leave behind the institutionalized impoverishment and hatred which surrounds him, his friends, and his family. Vinz and Hubert care for Saïd, who seems younger, but mediates the antithetical perspectives which his two friends represent. Vinz and Hubert inherit the collective trauma of racialized nation-building and express their trauma through two opposing yet human perspectives: hatred and sadness, violence and escape.                 

The friends board a train to Paris, where they encounter further institutionalized hostility and distrust from the police and the public. A billboard reads, “Le monde est à vous.” The word “vous,” which to Hubert refers to the white powers, carries the collective trauma of racialized nation-building. The world is not his — it was constructed upon his oppression. Hubert sprays an “n” over the “v,” humanizing the turn of phrase: the world is ours.

Through the scene, Kassovitz highlights contrasting understandings of humanity: the status quo of is a racialized nation that enacts oppressive systems to maintain white superiority and racial inferiority and a hope, a dream, of a world without hate.

However, Kassovitz is attentive to the inescapability of the racialized nation, driving the audience to understand the naivety of Hubert’s hope. In the final scene, a policeman, holding a gun to Vinz’s head, accidentally fires. Hubert and the policeman aim their guns at each other. They both fire as the film fades to black.

Earlier, Hubert recounts, “Heard about the guy who fell off a skyscraper? On his way down past each floor, he kept saying to reassure himself: so far so good, so far so good, so far so good. How you fall doesn’t matter. It’s how you land.”

The racialized nation casts the three friends into a state of perpetual freefall, which ends only in hateful violence. They cannot escape it, for it is encompassing; it is the substructure upon which modern society is erected. “It’s about a society falling,” says the narrator, as the film ends.

I believe we need to deconstruct and analyze, in academic and conversational contexts, the process of racialized nation-building and the racialized systems which shape modern reality. Kassovitz’ depiction of a racialized nation in violent conflict deserves greater recognition as radical truth. Perhaps some will suggest that nation-building is uniquely human, but I will argue that racialized nation-building is the intentional refusal to empathize and the triumph of hate over the greater human capacity of love.

Omar Mullick and These Birds Walk

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The Monday evening after Spring Break, I walked into Sci 101 to see a loose crowd quietly waiting for the documentary screening event of These Birds Walk. The event is part of a new speaker series called “Reflections from the Field.”

The event started with a short introduction to the filmmaker Omar Mullick who stood humbly and quite casually at the front of the room. After his introduction, he quickly dismissed the credentials game, as he called it, that speakers usually play and promote.

“I’m not going to stand here and list all my success stories,” said  Mullick, “especially in front of broke college students.”

He made a hand gesture, like drinking brandy with his pinky up, as he mocked his own list of impressive credentials.

“Blah, blah, blah,” said Mullick as he flicked his hand up.

Let’s be real, he seemed to say. Mullick’s keen dismissal of the pomposity that often shrouds impressive speakers here at Swarthmore made him likeable from the start. He was here to share and discuss his work, not to awe us.

The backdrop of the documentary is the work of the Edhi Foundation in Pakistan. The foundation was started by Abdul Sattar Edhi who, in Pakistan, is a humanitarian icon. The word Edhi is almost synonymous with an “SOS” cry. His philanthropic efforts are extremely expansive, and he runs the largest ambulance network in Pakistan. The documentary centers around the story of a young boy, Omar, who was in Edhi’s runaway shelters, and an ambulance driver who later sends the boy back to his parents. The camera closely followed Omar and his friends, and showcased intimate moments of their yearning, arguments, and pains.

Rida Hassan ’18, from Pakistan, shared her own respect for the Edhi Foundation, and also her recognition of the significance of the film in its portrayal of the foundation.

“The film really speaks to the tireless effort and unwavering commitment of the Edhi Foundation to uplifting those in need. Its position as an unparalleled system of social welfare in Pakistan is recognized by everyone,” said Hassan, “The film is a much needed reminder of the blood, sweat and tears of everyone who works to make it what it is.”

Audience members did not expect such a raw and intimate experience. Hassan commented that she was both surprised and delighted by the fact that the documentary was not overly analytical  or say, a briefing on the ‘situation in Pakistan’ as one would expect.

“I was… super excited to watch a film based in my city and interested to see how it portrayed Karachi and wider Pakistani society. And I think that’s where the surprise factor came in – the film is unequivocally not a commentary,” said Hassan.

The documentary, rather, was an artistic depiction of lives in a different context. Pavan Kalindindi ’19, a film major, was inspired by the choices and tools Mullick used and commented on the beauty of Mullick’s film.

“I think what I loved most about the documentary is that it was human and pure, [Mullick] managed to remain invisible throughout the film while telling such an incredible story as he put in effort to make the subjects comfortable with him filming them,” said Kalindindi.

Mullick himself comments on this at the end during his discussion, as his two young children came in and joined us.

“Someone asked in the beginning if maybe I wanted to add statistics in the beginning,” said Mullick, “but that detracts from it!”

It was clear that Mullick’s mission wasn’t just to bring light to the work of the Edhi Foundation or even to give us a sense of the dire circumstances that these children face, rather, his goal was to invoke empathy among audience members who have little to do with boys like Omar.

Mullick spoke passionately, and his down-to-earth nature allowed us as audience members to connect with him. Seeing him interact with his young daughter, as she climbed up on him giving him kisses between discussion questions, gave us a sense that he was someone who believed in the value of close human interaction that is portrayed in his documentary.

“He was passionate when talking about his experience and work and constantly referred to his inspirations,” said Kalindindi, “It was inspiring to have him.”

The discussion ended on a question from the audience asking what the title represented. Mullick chuckled, scratched his head and told us that he preferred to leave it up to interpretation.

 

B. Ruby Rich lectures on New Queer Cinema

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New Queer Cinema, a term first coined by B. Ruby Rich in a “Sight & Sound Magazine” in 1992, defines a movement in queer-themed independent filmmaking mainly in the 90s. In a world where topics about “queer” love is mostly associated with films such as “Brokeback Mountain” and “Milk,” and a topic which may be seen as Oscar bait, one may lose sight of the origins of the term “Queer Cinema” in independent films.    

In conjunction with her class titled “Queer Media,” Professor Patricia White invited B. Ruby Rich to give a lecture on Oct. 24th at Swarthmore College titled “The Public and the Private: Queer Cinema in the Age of Streaming.” Rich, an author, professor, and editor of Film Quarterly, had written the book “New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut,” which is what White uses in her class, and helped start the movement back in the 90s.

The lecture itself discussed numerous independent films, from both older and newer generations, with the idea of acknowledging and emphasizing the films that first brought homosexual relationships to audiences on the silver screen. The other topic she focused on was the effect of the digital age on “Queer Cinema” and the shift of “Queer Cinema” more towards Hollywood style films than independent ones, as White points out.   

“One of the main stories told is that mainstreaming has ruined the radical and political movies that have given way to the mainstreaming of gay people. Originally, the films proved that there were audiences beyond LGBT communities. There is slight disappointment with Hollywood over the banking on LGBT stories and ideas as it was previously a lot of political urgency in the original films due to the AIDS crisis at that time.”

Numerous students, including those in White’s Queer Cinema class, and adults attended the lecture. The attendees were later given the opportunity to express their questions and opinions on the topic when Rich opened the floor to those in the audience. These opinions and questions carried on even after the lecture as many students went up to Rich and spoke with her. Kemmer Cope ’17, who is in White’s class, was one of those who later spoke with Ms. Rich after the lecture, giving her recommendations of films to watch.

“For a lot of people, myself included, the ability to engage with the community without outing oneself or getting to know the community is a big thing for a person like me,” said Cope.

Jun Rendich-Millis ’19, who is also a student in Professor White’s class, attended the lecture as well sharing his notion of selectivity in “Queer Cinema”.

“I think the notion of “queer collectivity” is often idealized, failing to take into account intersectionality and the myriad differences between people, even within queer communities. Rich proposed that this might have to do with the rise of postmodernism and the end of the prevailing notion of a master narrative. I would agree with this, and add that the acknowledgement of intra community tensions and resulting alienation is also manifesting in film,” said Rendich-Millis

Though Rich calls this lecture a “work in progress,” the lecture as well as her book “New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut” are working in tandem with the rise of social media to close the generation gap, which was visible in those who attended the lecture, so that those interested in “New Queer Cinema” can become acquainted with the independent films that opened up the topic to both viewers of homosexual and heterosexual identifications, and broaden the selection and availability of films tackling such topics beyond the films and television shows of recent times.  

Professional screenwriter leads masterclass

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On Monday, Oct. 31, students gathered in Science Center to meet with Lee Sternthal, the former bouncer and the accomplished screenwriter from “The Words” and Disney’s “Tron: Legacy.” The seminar was sponsored by the film and media studies department, and was advertised with many of Sternthal’s credentials, including working at the Sundance Screenwriters’ Lab,

The seminar was held in SCI 199, and it was heavily attended by students in the film and media studies department. Professor of German studies and film and media studies Sunka Simon hosted Sternthal. She described his potential to give insight to students investigating film studies.

“He was in the area and reached out,” Simon said. “He stressed that he had been helped by others at crucial points in his career and ‘wanted to give back.’”

Sternthal explained how he was helped and expanded on why he wanted to pass on his understanding to others.

“Throughout my career, but especially at the beginning, I was lucky enough to have the support of so many people and institutions, including the Sundance Lab, without whom I would have never been able to write/direct/make images,” he described.

His drive for giving advice and guidance is founded in passing the spirit of creativity on to the next set of young screenwriters, directors, and other film industry members.

“Speaking at Swarthmore, and more generally to young artists and students at the beginning of their journey, is a way for me to pay the help and inspiration I have received forward.  My goal is to inspire those at the beginning of their careers to follow their passion for film and art, even though the path towards the life and work they want to make may at times seem more challenging and even treacherous than their friends and fellow students who may be choosing more ‘conventional’ careers.”

Ariana Hoshino ’20, a student in Simon’s Introduction to Film Studies course looking at the technical aspects of filmmaking, thought Sternthal gave more than enough back.

“As someone who is interested in going into the film industry, the talk was both inspirational and eye-opening. [Sternthal] has definitely struggled and succeeded, and one thing that he stressed was that those two things are deeply interconnected. I really enjoyed it,” Hoshino noted.

Sternthal encouraged the talk become a roundtable discussion and not a lecture. Hoshino was anxious going in, but she anticipated an exciting talk.

She confessed, “I guess my frame of mind was a combination of confusion and intrigue [going into the talk].”

Hoshino reflected on Sternthal as an accomplished and admirable figure because of his stature in the industry, but she recognized and appreciated his gravity during the seminar.

“Well, first of all, he’s made it, so it was just amazing listening to someone who has succeeded in the studio system. That’s not an easy task,” she added, impressed. “He was also an interested and engaged speaker, and he seemed just as honored to be speaking for us as I felt listening to him.”

Simon delved deeper into what other students learned from the seminar, highlighting that the start to a career and its path are not straightforward.

“Some students told me that it helped to hear that a successful career did not necessarily have to follow a linear or solitary path.”

Students in the seminar were particularly interested in hearing about becoming employed in the industry. Hoshino described how she saw Sternthal’s example.

“I think I’ve always seen the studio system as this unattainable money-filled heaven, but Sternthal definitely changed that image for me. The way he talked about working and his experience made it seem possible and fulfilling. I also had this idea that there was some magic way that people who are successful go about becoming successful, and he really emphasized that everyone has their own path,” stated Hoshino.

“Entering the industry in today’s convergent mediascape is much less streamlined than it used to be. There are as many entry points as combinations of intellectual, analytical, creative, [and] technological and communicative skills and interests — [and that’s] just to mention the changes in sound design and production that have created multiple new positions in studios, special sound labs and TV, where music, computer science and film majors could find a footing),” Simon said, continuing Hoshino’s thoughts.

“I prepared by living, working and making a lot of mistakes along the way in the last 15 years,” Sternthal said, sharing his thoughts on getting into the film industry.

One observation he made during his seminar was “the work has to be the reward.”  

On that note, Simon and Hoshino each expanded on this maxim.

“As a teacher and scholar, I actually know that’s true — to have sustained energy towards a goal, one needs to believe in one’s work, endure and thrive on the daily practice of it, as well as the ups and downs that come with it — outside of one’s parents and closest friends, bosses and managers don’t tend to acknowledge or reward one’s work in a meaningful way,” Simon began.

Hoshino extrapolated, “Oh, absolutely. I’m no successful Hollywood filmmaker by any means, but I have made a few short films where I just gave 110 percent effort, and the final product either wasn’t widely viewed or wasn’t good. In those cases, you have to look at it as a learning experience and be thankful for that work you put in, even if the final reward isn’t what you expected. If not, you get disheartened and stop, and that’s not a healthy outlook. It’s definitely not the way that a filmmaker or a writer succeeds.”

Hoshino provided some final thoughts on the lessons she took away from Sternthal’s talk.

“I guess the most memorable lesson that I learned from [Sternthal] wasn’t something that he actually said, but more of the example that he set,” Hoshino said. “He was humble yet confident. [He] seemed very thankful for everything that happened but […] prideful and aware of the work that it took to achieve this goal.”

Sternthal followed, hoping that students feel empowered creatively now and going forward in their careers in film.

“My greatest hope would be that they would feel inspired to go forward pursuing their dreams of making moving images and stories with their true voice fearlessly, even though they may not be quite sure yet how to do it, or even what that will look like,” he started.

Sternthal expanded, saying he hopes that his talk, at least, imparted insight into what career students might want to enter into.

“I also hope they feel that they have a little more knowledge about the path that’s right for them to try and do so, and, most of all, that each of them should feel [that they can say,] ‘I can do this, too.’ I hope to share what little knowledge and experience I have to offer to help them make the strongest and smartest choices for themselves no matter what path they take, or what art they may create,” he wished. “I really enjoyed the conversation, hope my answers were helpful and I can only hope that they were as inspired by me as I was by their curiosity, energy, and passion for film.”

Sternthal’s work impressed students and Simon, but he surely left his audience with more than just his track record. He gave them the opportunity to understand how to marry the pride of one’s work with the industry one must work through.

Israel/Palestine Film Series Prompts Discourse

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After its successful debut last year, the Israel/Palestine Film Series is returning this semester in an attempt to supplement the analytical study of Israeli and Palestinian politics and to shed some light on the underlying emotional complexities of the conflict.

Last Wednesday, the film “Walk on Water” was screened in LPAC Cinema. It was the second of six films which will be shown throughout the months of September and October. The film series is curated and hosted by visiting assistant professor of peace and conflict studies Sa’ed Atshan. Attendance of the screenings is required for students currently enrolled in Professor Atshan’s Israeli-Palestinian Conflict class (PEAC 053), but the series is open to the public as well.

The goal of the film series, according to Atshan, is to provide a human aspect to the politics of the Israel/Palestine conflict.

“The purpose for my students is so that they not only study the conflict from a cerebral, intellectual, abstract, academic realm, but that they understand the human, visceral, emotional component of this,” Atshan said. “And so I think that the six films play a very powerful role in humanizing both Israelis and Palestinians.”

Personally, Atshan added that he also very much enjoys organizing and hosting a film series in general.

“I love films,” he said. “I very much appreciate films. I think it’s an incredible human invention. And it was really really fun to be a curator and to choose six films that are diverse in terms of different genres … that cover such a range of themes.”

“Walk on Water” follows Eyal, an Israeli Mossad agent assigned to hunt down an ex-Nazi officer. Eyal befriends the man’s two grandchildren, brother and sister Axel and Pia, to get closer to his target. Along the way, Eyal’s beliefs are challenged when he learns that Axel is gay and when he meets Axel’s friend Rafik, an Arab man. In turn, Axel also learns about and struggles with the role his family played in the Holocaust.

The drama/thriller was directed by Israeli filmmaker Eytan Fox. Fox was born in New York and moved to Jerusalem with his parents when he was two years old. He attended the Tel Aviv Film School before joining the army where he struggled with his homosexuality. Following his military service, Fox worked in television for a number of years before directing big screen films. In his films, Fox explores questions of identity in the midst of national conflict. “Walk on Water,” his fourth feature length film is critically acclaimed internationally and has won a total of four awards including Best Music and Best Sound from the Israeli Film Academy.

For students majoring in Peace and Conflict Studies or for students who have taken a class or two in the department, the humanizing aspect of the films seems to add an emotional dimension to their studies of words on paper about the complex politics of the Israel/Palestine conflict. For community members who may have had limited or no exposure to the conflict, the films are a reminder of how the events in the news affect the people living there.

“Last week, a faculty member, a biology professor, shared that in the discourse on the conflict, he had forgotten these were everyday people doing everyday things,” Atshan said. “And that was just such a powerful realization [for him] that, in the midst of the conflict, ordinary life has to go on.”

Jasmine Jimenez ’19 experienced a similar realization when she attended last year’s film series. Prior to the screening, Jimenez did not know much about the Israel/Palestine conflict.

“I was not aware of the issues that the series concerns itself with until I saw that movie,” she said. “It literally showed me a world and … an entire paradox that is so apparent [but is] still ignored and … dismissed for whatever reason.”

Jimenez went on to discuss how a student she knows went on a trip to Israel and Palestine with Professor Atshan and saw the conflict in person.

“He [mentioned] how profound of an experience it was to witness that kind of disparity and aggression … and the fact that it was solely based on identity: political, religious, ethnic,” Jimenez said, “and since then, whenever it’s mentioned, I definitely have this perspective of it’s not as simple as anyone can make it.”

Last year, some students who took PEAC 053 had the opportunity to travel with Professor Atshan to visit the region which the class is concerned with. The students enrolled in the course this year will have the same opportunity over winter break.

“I think [this is] a topic that does not get as much attention as it deserves,” Jimenez said, “and however that can be helped I think is in a positive direction.”

Other students agree that it is important to discuss the conflict. George Abraham ’17, a Palestinian-American student also enrolled in Atshan’s class, expressed his appreciation for it. He feels that the class does a good job in allowing students to talk about the conflict.

“The class promotes discussion in a very constructive way and not in a way that’s harmful to any particular perspective,” he said.

Abraham acknowledged that because the conflict in Israel-Palestine is such a contentious topic, there is always a bit of tension in class. However, he believes discussion is important.

“No matter who you are you’re going to get challenged in this class,” he said. “There’s a devil’s advocate in every discussion and your views are going to be challenged, and I like that.”

It is important to note that, while many members of the community agree that PEAC 053 is a fantastic class and that the film series promotes valuable discussion, it is by no means a unanimous sentiment. The complexities of the conflict in Israel and Palestine transfer over into the Swarthmore community. Some voices are significantly underrepresented on campus and in discussions of this controversial topic. In fact, many individuals decided to stay out of this particular article altogether, wary of the potential repercussions of voicing an unpopular opinion. This caution further illustrates the fact that these issues are far more complicated than many feel capable of expressing.

While opinions differed on the film series overall, many community members felt that the first film, a documentary entitled “Promises,” successfully illustrated the complexities of the conflict.

“It’s not possible to jump into the conflict in 2016 without an understanding of what has been taking place for the better part of the last century,” one student, who requested to remain anonymous, expressed. “But the first movie did a good job of giving a balanced perspective of what people are currently feeling.”

Centered around Jerusalem, the documentary interviewed children of all backgrounds in Israel and Palestine. Some were very religious and some were very secular. The focus on children provided a powerful awareness of how conflict impacts people living on different sides.

“[The children] had very mature and complex emotions on what was going on. It was like, ‘Oh my goodness,’” Abraham expressed. “They interviewed refugee children and it’s amazing how they learn to adapt and survive.”

At the end of the documentary the filmmakers asked the children if they wanted to meet some of the others. Abraham described their responses.

“Some of the kids said no and were very racist,” he said. “It was interesting to see there were some kids on the extreme [ends] in both cases.”

Other kids, however, who fell more in the middle of the spectrum, agreed to meet each other and ended up getting along. Abraham said that it was touching to see these children from such different backgrounds become friends.

In general, many viewers appreciated the honesty with which the documentary illustrated how the conflict affects the day-to-day lives of Israelis and Palestinians.

The third film, “The Gatekeepers,” was shown yesterday, and there will be three more films in the remainder of the series. “The War Around Us” will show on Wednesday, September 28, “Paradise Now” on October 5, and “Eyes Wide Open” on October 19, following Fall Break. The films are also on reserve in McCabe and can be borrowed by anyone who cannot make it to the screening.

“Oriented” film shows intersectional perspectives

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Last Tuesday, the documentary “Oriented”, produced and directed by Jake Witzenfeld, was screened as a result of sponsorship from the Peace and Conflict Studies and Sociology and Anthropology departments, as well as the Lang Center for Civic and social responsibility. The film offers a glimpse into the lives of a group of young, queer Palestinians living in Tel Aviv. “Oriented” both draws attention the unique intersection of national and sexual identities these individual face and makes plain the the similarities between queer life in the Middle East and the Western world.

The film is centered around Khader Abu-Seif, a well known Palestinian LGBT activist living in Jaffa, a portion of Tel Aviv more heavily populated with Arabs. Two of his friends, Naeem Jiryes and Fadi Daem, are featured as main characters. The documentary follows the men as they navigate the difficulties of living as a gay Arab in Israel: the complications attached to dating Jewish men, the inhospitality of Israel during times of war, the suffocating traditions of the villages where they grew up. However, “Oriented” by no means intends to paint a picture of these men as victims. It shows them, along with their friend Nagham Yacoub partying in Amman and Tel Aviv. The film shows the four friends forming Qambuta Productions, through which they create musical tribute videos for the Arabic community, full of social and political criticism. Abu-Seif makes it clear early on in the documentary, when he tells the story of a BBC reporter who contacted him, looking for a gay Palestinian who’d suffered, that he has no interest in furthering one-dimensional views of people like himself and this film does him that service.

Dr. Sa’ed Atshan from the Peace and Conflict Studies department, was responsible for arranging the screening and the following discussion with Abu-Seif. He described appreciating the film not only for its portrayal of the intersectional identities of the men, but also for the compelling and powerful friendships the film showcases.

“I thought it was beautifully done. It showed you how human beings who are at the intersection of so many different identities — who are at the margin of the margin, the minority of the minority, of the minority — navigate their everyday lives,” he said. ”I thought it really humanized queer Palestinians who live in Israel. But I was also touched by the friendships that they forged. You could see how they support each other, how they have eachother’s backs, it was really beautiful.”

Abu-Seif also described enjoying very similar aspects of the movie. To him, the role of his friends in the movie was also crucial and very powerful.

“The biggest disappointment for me in the movie, but also the thing that made me happy the most was to discover that I’m not – to me at least – the strongest character in the movie,” he said. “To discover how strong my friends are and how strong they are as characters was amazing because in that moment I knew I chose the right friends and I was proud of them.”

Throughout the discussion, Abu-Seif was adamant about correcting misconceptions about queer life in Arabic community. He pointed to examples, like his parties in Tel Aviv, gay clubs in Amman, and the nickname for the Lebanese capital within the Arabic LGBT community, “Gay-rut”. He also spoke out against the assumption he has encountered in the West that the difficulties he’s encountered don’t exist in the West. Abu-Seif described frequently being approached by members of minority communities in the United State after screenings and told about how relatable his story was. He also expressed a firm conviction that coming out of the closet is just as difficult for many individuals in the American South as it was for his friends in Tel Aviv.

While standing firm against the depiction of queer Arabs as victims, Abu-Seif was also candid about the difficulties he faces living in Tel Aviv. For example, when there is fighting between Palestinians and Israel, life for Arabs in Israel becomes very difficult.

“Even speaking in Arabic on the bus would be super dangerous because you are the enemy,” said Abu-Seif. “To people who don’t know you on the bus, you are a threat — you are an immediate threat. Your mother is calling and you want to talk with your mother in your language but you can’t because you know that people will be afraid of you.”

He also identified a lack of support for Arabs in the international LGBT community. He spoke about not only a problematic lack of representation for Arabs in the international LGBT community, but also a lack of support and protection for LGBT Arabs from international organizations.

“Other countries and organizations don’t understand where we’re coming from. We need Arabic organizations, who will understand our struggle and understand where we’re coming from. At every [pride] parade you go to today, no matter which parade, you will find thousands of Israeli flags, but you cannot find one Arabic country’s flag, because people are afraid.”, Abu-Seif said.

Although he mentioned several issues he and his friends face, Abu-Seif was always firm in asserting that he does not want Western help in addressing them. He believes that solutions to these issues must come from within the culture they are native to, like the possible international Arabic LGBT organization he mentioned.

“To be honest and rude: stay out of our business,” he said.

 

Aquí y Ahora: International Spanish film and television scholars come to campus

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Last Friday and Saturday, “Aquí y Ahora,” an international conference on contemporary TV and film production in Spain took place in the Science Center. The conference was hosted by the the Spanish Section of the college’s Department of Modern Languages along with the Spanish Departments of Haverford and Bryn Mawr. The event featured a variety of panels over a day and a half, including a keynote speech on “History, Hauntology, Representation: Spanish Cinema Against Itself” by Professor at University of Illinois at Chicago Steven Marsh.

Professor of Spanish Adrián Gras-Velázquez was largely responsible for bringing this conference to Swarthmore, along with Bryn Mawr Professor of Film Studies Dr. Rosi Song. Gras-Velázquez explained how the event came about.

“We applied to the Mellon TriCo Faculty Forum grant and through them were able to organize this conference on contemporary Spanish film,” he said.“I wanted to bring Spanish film to the fore here. We do use film and media in our classes, when teaching, and we thought it would a cool idea for students to have access to the academic study of Spanish film.”

For Spanish students at Swarthmore who are taking Gras-Velázquez’ “Contemporary Spanish Film” class this semester, this conference served as a unique opportunity to extend their studies beyond the limits of the classroom. One of those students, Katherine Hannah ‘17 enjoyed the experience, although she did note the high level of academic discourse could be confusing.

“It was a really cool experience. There were a few panels that talked about films we’d seen in class and talked about which was nice because I think myself and other students felt that we had some background and were able to actually connect with what they’re saying. It was cool to see professors interact with other people in their area of expertise,” said Hannah.

She also mentioned that the conference offered her an opportunity to get a broader view of Spanish cinema and to encounter different points of view and ideas surround Spanish film and television.

“It definitely helped me understand larger themes in Spanish film that maybe we hadn’t touched on… That was interesting, to learn what Spanish cinema is all about,”  Hannah said. “There were people who talked about things that we hadn’t really talked about and films that we hadn’t talked about or tied films in that we’d seen but in different ways that we hadn’t discussed.”

The current of success of Spanish film and television, despite the state of the Spanish economy was a topic touched upon by the keynote speech and a motivator for Gras-Velázquez to host this event.

“Our idea was that Spain is going through a crisis, and has been going through a crisis for quite a long time, and this crisis is also happening in the culture and the arts of Spain,” said Gras-Velázquez. “ We have seen that, even though there are less funding opportunities in Spain to direct movies and there’s less money from different production companies, they’re still coming out with a lot of movies and the movies they’re coming out with now in Spain are getting more worldwide recognition than they were before.”

The conference also discussed other themes important to contemporary Spanish film and television, such as stereotyping and memory. The event attracted a wide variety of visitors to campus to present on and discuss these topics.

“The conference was attended by almost 50 people, including Swarthmore students and professors, as well as professors from the Trico colleges, and colleges and universities around the US, the UK, and Spain, throughout the day and a half that it took place,” said Gras-Velázquez.

Every one of the faculty who visited campus this past weekend which were contacted for this article reported being very impressed not only with the conference, but with the college as a whole.

“I had a fantastic opportunity to heard my colleagues’ work and to share my ideas and work, as well as to receive input from them. The conference was very well organized and provided us with the opportunity to interact intellectually as well as socially in a small and intimate environment,” said Dr. Mónica Cantero-Exojo, from Drew University.

“The conference was one of the best ones I have attended. I learned a lot from all the presentations, and everybody was very nice. All the papers I heard had an outstanding quality, which made the conference even more interesting. Swarthmore College is located in a beautiful campus, and all the professors at Swarthmore made us feel at home,” said Dr. Ana Corbálan, from the University of Alabama.

“All of the presentations were high quality and thought-provoking, and the question-and-answer sessions that ended each panel were lively, as were the continuation of the conversations during the breaks,” said Dr. Thomas Deveny, from McDaniel College. “I had not visited your campus before, and holding the conference at such a lovely site also helped make the conference a tremendous success.”

Gras-Velázquez attributed this overwhelming success to all the help he had received. The Film and Media Studies department at the college and the Film Studies Program at Bryn Mawr co-sponsored the event, as well as the Provost’s office. Gras-Velázquez identified María Luisa Guardiola and Luciano Martínez from within the Spanish Section and acknowledged that the help from the Scott Arboretum, where the conference attendees ate lunch on Saturday, was undoubtedly valuable in convincing the visiting faculty of the campus’ beauty.

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