Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Lady in the Water



























Marc Saint-Cyr on Humanist Cinema

One Wonderful Sunday, Dodes’ka-den, Drifting Clouds, and The Man Without a Past are all masterpieces of humanist cinema. They all impart valuable instruction on how to work with what you’ve got in life, even if it amounts to very little. They all tell you how to do so with the utmost dignity and courage. They all place faith in the everlasting possibility that lights can be sparked in the dusk and shadows can be banished from paradise. They all champion those forces that can defeat misery and bring back happiness, be they dreams and plans for the future, acts of charity, love, or luck. They show that such forces can amount to as little as a shared beer or cup of coffee, a comforting hand on a shoulder, or a single date with someone special, and yet can still mean so much. Most of all, they provide that bit of faith in yourself and other people that you sometimes need to keep moving forward despite the troubles that hinder your steps.
Read all of Marc Saint-Cyr's essay Down and Out in Helsinki and Tokyo: Aki Kaurismäki and Akira Kurosawa’s Humanist Tales in the new issue of Senses of Cinema.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Cahiers Criticisms

It might be petty to hate on Cahiers for rejecting my  « une émotion qui vous hante  » contribution but they also ignore the genius of Jean-Marc Vallée which is in itself kind of sad. Vallée is one of the greatest artists of the 21st century. His career from his modest origins to his more recent American films reflects a sense of daring, finesse, and intelligence. Dallas Buyers Club is one of the important films of our times and Wild is the most anticipated film of the year. For Cahiers, which is an important film magazine, to have different priorities that does not allow them to see this is not only strange but is plainly wrong.
After having defended Cahiers over here at Toronto Film Review and conveyed their views and translated some of their pieces I want to make it clear that this is an irreconcilable difference. (I actually think there’s an anti-Vallée conspiracy, but that’s another story).
But this isn’t the only criticism that one could make against Cahiers, and since they’ve pissed me off I’ll indulge in some hating.
First off there are the critiques by other reputable film critics.
Jonathan Rosenbaum on his blog talks about the “continuing auto-destruction of the original Cahiers du Cinéma.” While Verso similarly published a short history that is take-down of the magazine since the Eighties, which was surprisingly translated in French too, arguing for its apolitical nature and commercialism.
There are good film magazines in North America like Cinema Scope, Film Comment and Cineaste who take their tasks of publishing film criticism seriously and try to help young writers break out in the field and sustain a longer tradition and hierarchy with older generation critics. So when Cahiers starts championing critically aberrant films like Restless or Twilight: Breaking Dawn - Part 1 it stupefies.
Richard Brody, who is one public face of the Cahiers project (even though it is one that seems to be stuck in the Fifties), makes a clear distinction between his taste and those advocated contemporarily at Cahiers in a discussion of the Stéphane Delorme and Nicholas Elliott Bomb interview, “It passes through some individual ideas and opinions that differ from my own, but it traces a central line through film history [emphasis mine].”
Michael Sicisnki writing about Paolo Sorrentino for Cinema Scope, “It’s often difficult to comprehend Cahiers’ enthusiasm for Nanni Moretti, but it becomes a bit easier when one considers that the Italian directors dominating the world stage during the ’80s and ’90s were people like Ettore Scola, Giuseppe Tornatore, and Liliana Cavani.”
Adam Nayman, also in Cinema Scope, on Super 8, a film held to be a masterpiece at Cahiers, “For the most part, though, Super 8 aspires to be kinetic, did-you-see-that entertainment, and Abrams never quite finds the pounding rhythm required for that kind of affect.” And don't get Robert Koehler started on The Tree of Life...
Kent Jones for Project: New Cinephilia undermines any value held for a certain Indian-American director,
“On the subject of the barrier between film critics and filmmakers, someone once told me a story that’s amusing but also instructive. At the time of its release, there was a French press junket for A History of Violence and a critic from a certain magazine was invited to attend. He asked the following question: “Mr. Cronenberg, I admired your film very much. And I wanted to ask you to talk about the obvious influence of M. Night Shyamalan on your work in general and on this film in particular.” There was a brief pause, and then Cronenberg answered, “I HATE that guy! Next question.”” 
Alex Horwath in a Film Comment roundtable,
“I think an existing idea is expressed by this shared award because there is a certain tendency in French film culture now that assumes there is a new, new, new, new wave at the moment, raising its head in the last two or three years. Several of the films that Cahiers du Cinéma singled out in 2013 were shown in various sections here last year. I find all of them incredibly weak and uninteresting… And this year by saying Dolan and Godard, they are saying that there is a continuous rejuvenation of a certain French cinema that we all associate with the nouvelle vague. And it comes back again and again. And it’s an eternal spirit of the French film culture. And that to me is one of the big lies of contemporary global film culture, that there is any interesting movement in French cinema at the moment. There isn’t.” 
Even Michel Ciment, the Roger Ebert of French film criticism, chimes in on these young filmmakers championed by Cahiers in his review of Justine Triet’s La Bataille de Solferino,
“Like La fille du 14 juillet, the film benefits from a considerable support of a certain tendency of French film criticism and even of the public (“he was the only one,” Cocteau would add sarcastically). For example, it received the Grand Prix at the Paris festival. After having passed the ACID test (Cannes 2013), it proudly wears its new Nouvelle Vague colors. Like said Marx, when history repeats itself it’s a farce.”
When I saw the Antonin Peretjatko film as part of the Cahiers screening series at the Alliance Française in New York, it was in a half full auditorium of the typical white-haired specialized-screening attendee who, I would assume, are not the ideal audience for its youthful iconoclasm. Even Claire Denis at a screening of Mille Soleils distinguished Mati Diop from these other directors (“She’s a wave on her own”) and on her newest film comments how it doesn’t have to be a comedy, which is probably a retort to Cahiers’ recent emphasis (c.f. Éloge de la comédie).
The Cahier Critiques are usually good but sometimes they are off the mark. For example, in Joachim Lepastier’s review of Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere there is wrong information as he claims that it’s his first full-length feature since Iguana. But what about Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out!? Or even Stanley’s Girlfriend? Two works that are essential for an understanding of Hellman’s resourcefulness and work in genre in his late career.
Recently, there have been many new writers contributing some of the more prominent critiques and unfortunately not all of them are up to par (the less said about these the better), except for Gaspar Nectoux who is actually great. And there has been too many important recent films – Gianfranco Rosi’s Sacro GRA, comes to mind – that have been pushed to their Notes sur d’autres films section. And in recent years can you believe that I’ve already counted two (!) dismissals of the great Pierre Berthomieu?
I’ve noticed something else that’s strange recently from just reading their reviews from the Two-thousand years... It looks like most directors that were championed by the previous adjoined chief editor Emmanuel Burdeau are now being devalued by the current Delorme-Jean-Philippe Tessé chief editors duo almost with the violence and severity that recalls The Godfather mafia assassinations. (M. Night Shyamalan and Albert Serra are the two more prominent directors that come to mind). This also applies to films associated with the Burdeau affiliated Capricci. This is significant because it undermines his period there and denies him a contemporary influence at the magazine. I can’t speak to the reasons for this (I don't know) or to the social relations of film critics in France but can assume that this creates tensions, strains personal relationships and creates real divisions between its current writers and some of the past ones.
Aside from the original Nouvelle Vague - Godard, Truffaut etc. - who are regularly referenced admirably (a return to origins?) and whose generation is currently only protested through Cahiers' reevaluation of Jean Grémillon and Akira Kurosawa (though this started before Delorme's editorship); some of their more recent critics-turned-filmmakers like Olivier Assayas and Thierry Jousse have been judged surprisingly negatively. Though Mia Hansen-Løve is an exception to this.
Cahiers' debates, though they don’t necessarily have to do this, have very little practical application in North America. Except for an issue on New York filmmakers (it’s not the center of the continent, I hope they know that?), they don't care about the social realities of North American film financing, production, festival circuits, or distribution. The American independent films that they do review are usually the more commercial ones that have enough financing to even be able to get distribution in France. For example, even though they rightly champion the films of Denis Côté and Matt Porterfield, there are smaller films like Tower or The Oxbow Cure that will never play in Paris so are totally overlooked there. And it's not like they come to the smaller festivals here, either.
Obviously English is not their first language which contributes to the difference between how the French and English judge American films. For example, in some cinephile circles here the dialogue in Beasts of the Southern Wild came off as stilted which led to the preferred film being its reverse-shot (also set in New Orleans), the more realistic and optimistic Tchoupitoulas.
Cahiers’ American correspondents have practically a non-existent social voice (they are not on social media, or ever discussed on the net). And it’s not like their main writers ever come to the North American film festivals to see films or to make social bonds that might be able to help them spread their influence.
Just to say Cahiers, it’s a small group, and they’re under attack. The situation recalls Howard Hawk’s Ball of Fire. I actually don’t think they’re that bad. But it’s lonely to defend them here. It would be easier if they liked Vallée.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Nest

Visualizing Social Experience by Samuel Adelaar

To accompany the Early Monthly Segments screening (July 14th at 8PM at the Gladstone hotel) of Robert Gardner's Rivers of Sand I'm grateful to my friend Samuel Adelaar for letting me put up this essay that he wrote on it. - D.D.

***
            The aim of this essay is to explore how David MacDougall's distinctive vision for visual anthropology sheds light upon Robert Gardner's ethnographic film Rivers of Sand (1973). I will begin by explicating the key facets of this vision. In order to do so I will synthesize MacDougall's various elaborations and articulations of it across several articles. Then I will mobilize his critical lens not only to examine the film, but also to assess criticisms of it from the field of anthropology.
            MacDougall begins his inquiry into the epistemological dimension of visual anthropology by posing these questions: "what can images convey that may lead to new knowledge, and when is such knowledge relevant to anthropology?"[1] At the level of individual images, he argues that cinema expresses "knowledge by acquaintance," which consists of, amongst other things, "direct awareness of sense-data." Spectators apprehend not only ideas about a thing, but a mimetic reproduction of the thing itself. According to him, this form of knowledge differs from that of writing, which delivers "knowledge by description." Knowledge by description holds a thing at a distance, occluding the possibility of getting a sensorial grasp of it. Put another way, he explains, this form of knowledge is engendered by the "generality" of language, which he opposes to the "specificity" of the image.[2]
            One critique of visual anthropology, he notes, is that is has less control over the encoding and decoding of meaning than writing. He explains that the source of this lack is the specificity of the image. Because it is an iconic signifier the image will consist of parts conveying meaning not intended by the filmmaker. This excess presents the possibility of modifying, contradicting or muddying the intentional meaning. In terms of reception, this offers the spectator excessive interpretive freedom.[3] However, he argues that visual anthropology elicits a different kind of reception than written anthropology. He describes this as "exploratory" and "imaginative." From the aggregate of shots and cuts the spectator is engendered to apprehend meaningful juxtapositions and note motifs and themes created by larger structural patterns. This points to the idea that film viewing is an imaginative activity in which the film as a whole exists only in the mind of the spectator, and the thoughts and feelings it conveys are therefore made intelligible in the process of interpretation.[4]
            He also examines the mode of reception elicited by the form of knowledge produced by visual anthropology through a concept he calls the "cinematic imagination." The cinematic imagination denotes the idea that the construction of texts is designed to create "an interpretive space for the reader or spectator."[5] A text whose form is guided by the cinematic imagination, he writes, exemplifies "a multi-positional perspective that acknowledges the fragmentary nature of experience and, by extension, the constructed nature of human knowledge. It also involves a displacement of the reader/spectator from the margins of the work toward its center."[6]  In terms of technique, the cinematic imagination prescribes a filmmaking practice that depicts actions, scenes and spaces in a piecemeal fashion. Put another way, it suggests the use of what David Bordwell calls constructive editing, in which actions, scenes and spaces are never depicted in their totality, but rather realized through an accumulation of various perspectives. This yields gaps in which the spectator mobilizes her interpretative capacities.[7]
            He links the image's knowledge by acquaintance to the anthropological concept of relational knowledge. This is the concept, he explains, that cultural meaning is immanent to, and therefore can only be made intelligible at the level of, actions and events. "Many cultural institutions..." he writes, "should not be understood primarily as communicating specific symbolic or social messages. Their meaning resides as much, or more, in their performance."[8] The aim of anthropological interpretation then is to avoid abstraction from the data. In practice this involves forging a network of relations between data points rather than connections to other facets of the culture. According to him, relational knowledge generates "more intimate anthropological truths that can only with some absurdity be developed into general statements [emphasis mine]." In short, cinema produces relational knowledge by "direct acquaintance with social moments, physical environments, and the bodies of specific social actors."[9]
            Beyond relational knowledge, he argues, cinema can also produce "explanatory" and "affective" knowledge. Explanatory knowledge comprises theoretical statements about data. Cinema can furnish this form of knowledge, he asserts, through its comparative and aggregative features. By contrast, affective knowledge is a function of the triangulated relation between the things depicted by images, the actions they are involved in, and the spectator. From this relation, he argues, the spectator apprehends "the quality of experience" of the potential of the thing in action.[10] This is a felt, embodied form of knowledge. According to him, written anthropology privileges the explanatory over the relational and affective; visual anthropology reverses this hierarchy.[11]
            In terms of written anthropology, alternative forms of knowledge elicit transformations in the relationship between author, text and reader. Therefore, he examines how the reader, or rather the spectator in this case, apprehends the author's placement in anthropological texts. This relationship is addressed through the concept of self-reflexivity. "Reflexivity..." he explains, " involves putting representation into perspective as we practice it."[12] He argues that cinema fosters a deep reflexivity, which denotes the idea that filmmakers are inscribed within the ensemble of sounds and moving images constituting their films. He cites James Clifford, who writes, "it has become clear that every version of the 'other,' wherever found, is also the construction of a 'self.'"[13] Moreover, MacDougall argues that deep reflexivity reflects the process of anthropological work. This process is defined by a shifting, evolving relationship between the anthropologist and her subject. He also asserts that the practice of filmmaking corresponds to the anthropologist's "consciousness of inscription" in her work.[14] This consciousness, he explains, is evoked by the stylistic character and content of each individual shot. He further shows that deep reflexivity mirrors one of the objectives of documentary cinema in the 1960s, which was to "[embody] the perspectives of actual observers, even if these observers were not seen."[15] In terms of cinematic technique, this aim was achieved through camera movements that expressed the corporeality of the filmmaker. He explains that in this period self-reflexivity constituted an ethical imperative. It "[permitted] a more contingent and historicized basis of social and cultural description."[16]
            MacDougall's examination of the specificity of the medium of cinema fosters a conceptual pathway between forms of knowledge created by, and fields of inquiry of, visual anthropology. He argues that one of the key "expressive structures" of cinema is designated by "the principle of co-presentation."[17] This is a feature of the medium's fundamental unit, the shot. He argues that shots exhibit an intrinsic "multivalency." Shots are ambiguous because although their contents are concretely unique, the ways in which their distinct parts interact yield not only an uncontrollable polysemy, but also an unsignifying cinematic excess. According to him, the simultaneity of the interaction of the elements of the shot is expressively powerful, but also problematic. He compares the expressivity of shots to our phenomenal experience of the world, arguing that shots must offer form, and therefore delimit this experience, but also enrich it through explanation and understanding. The construction of a film involves harnessing, controlling and eventually giving in to the chaotic nature of a shot's "combinative power."[18] Moreover, he notes the multi-sensory experience of simultaneous sound and image and the synaesthetic effects it has on the spectator. "A shot of a child's fingers rubbing across the surface of a balloon,"  he writes, " evokes more than the actions and sounds involved: it suggests the way the balloon must feel, and even an imminent explosion". The more evocative of our corporeal experience, the more a film can provoke memories of our own experiences, which can function as a model for understanding the film.[19] In this light, co-presentation also signifies the simultaneous reproduction of the sensory qualities of the shot's elements, that is, he writes, their "form, texture, color, and volume."[20]
            According to him, co-presentation allows cinema to render the various dimensions of interaction between individuals, which is a powerful tool for understanding the lived experience of both the everyday and the ritual in culture. Moreover, because these dimensions can be depicted simultaneously, human interaction can be captured in its complexity. These dimensions, he writes, include "gesture, facial expression, speech, body movement, and physical surroundings."[21]
            He also asserts that co-presentation offers a distinct understanding of how objects are experienced within a culture. The mediation of objects by images grasps the fact that the former are experienced by individuals both in terms of their symbolic meaning and their raw materiality. Moreover, objects might only exercise a symbolic function as a part of a set. This constellation can be uniquely captured by the shot's property of simultaneity. Co-presentation, he explains, also points to the fact that whenever an object, action, place, event and so on is reintroduced in a film the fullness of its sensory quality is reiterated. He argues that this is an interpretively valuable feature of the medium because it fosters the perception of connections.[22]
            He claims that narrative resists and delimits the shot's chaotic multivalency. Narratives exert an "explanatory power" that can "[make] clear the forces working on the protagonists." This explanatory dimension emerges from the fact that cinema is a medium of succession, that actions accumulate as the narrative's duration unfolds. Another dimension of film's explanatory power is its ability to juxtapose things, and therefore make connections between them despite their potentially disparate identities.[23]
            Cinema's capacity to individuate people, he argues, is derived from both the uniqueness of mimetic reproduction and the linkage of voice to body. A person's face is the key to the process of individuation. Perception of it fosters the viewer's identification with the person which in turn can elicit a better understanding of "the emotional content of social interaction and agency." Moreover, all of the features of the face are simultaneously presented in their mediation through film. The interaction of these features, when depicted in close up, opens up a continuum between the visible and the invisible, that is, between the surface of the face and the person's thoughts and feelings.[24]
            He asserts that cinema's medium specificity allows for an examination of the "the aesthetic dimension of social experience."[25] This is the idea that humans are shaped by, but also shape, their sensorial experience of the environments they inhabit. An emphasis on the sensorial foregrounds the idea that this experience does not need to coalesce consciously in the form of language. He writes, "it is possible (and in fact normal) to go through life participating in social rituals, reproducing aesthetic forms, and obeying rules of behavior chiefly because not to do so invites criticism. At the same time, one is shaped and, in terms of personal pleasure, rewarded by these forces and in subtle (and sometimes more definitive) ways one has power to transform them."[26]
            MacDougall's theorization of the features of the medium of cinema most beneficial to, and the collateral forms of knowledge produced by, visual anthropology point him towards a prescriptive delimitation of the areas of inquiry visual anthropology suggests a proclivity for examining. In general, visual anthropology endeavours to understand, he writes, "how people perceive their material environment and interact with it, in both its natural and cultural forms, including their interactions with others as physical beings."[27] More concretely, MacDougall divides social experience into four "conceptual domains:" the topographic, the temporal, the corporeal and the personal. Each conceptual domain comprises a broad range of issues, subjects, themes and so on. Therefore, I will outline those that I think are most relevant to an analysis of Rivers of Sand. The topographic domain, then, comprises "the anthropology of space and place" and "the study of social life-worlds as they are materially and culturally constructed." The temporal domain designates "socialization, cultural reproduction, and social change." The corporeal domain consists of "the anthropology of the senses; studies of sexuality, gender, movement, posture, and gesture; the forms of intersubjective behaviour... patterns of self-presentation and the rituals of everyday life." Finally, the personal domain constitutes "social identity... family roles" and "hierarchy."[28]
            Rivers of Sand depicts the social experience of the Hamar community, which is located in Ethiopia. The film's duration is dedicated to elaborating the idea that the Hamar culture is largely defined by its patriarchal social relations. Charles Warren sheds light on the historical context informing the film's feminist perspective: "Rivers of Sand's mood of social critique... resonates with much thinking worldwide in the later 1960s and the 1970s."[29] In an interview with Ilisa Barbash, Gardner not only affirms this idea, but also adds to it a personal dimension: "Indeed [the film] does owe something to the climate of thought about the situation of women in the late 60s, but it also owes something to what was happening in my own life as a father and husband." He goes on to say that he took for granted, and therefore exploited, his own role as patriarch. He was made aware of the power afforded to him in this position by his experience in the Hamar community.[30] Rivers of Sand constitutes a "dialogue" between an interview with a woman of the Hamar community and long observational sections depicting both everyday and ritual practices. My analysis will focus on the interview and everyday life in the Hamar community.
            The interview features the woman, named Omali Inda, describing the typical social experience of a woman in her community. Throughout the interview she articulates this in terms of family roles, cultural reproduction, ideology, ritual, and material culture. More specifically, she describes transitional moments in the lives of Hamar women, which function to place them in subordinate positions determined by the culture's patriarchal structure. For example, she describes the ways in which a husband disciplines his new wife in order to establish and maintain his dominance. Two critiques of the film from the field of anthropology elaborate their complaints by pointing to problems with the interview. Jean Lydall and Ivo Strecker accuse Gardner of framing subjective impressions as an objective account of Hamar culture.[31] Not perceiving the film as an act of deceit, Jay Ruby, finding fault with its animating principle, charges it with being driven by a personal vision, rather than an ethnographic impulse.[32] I will return to these central claims in my analysis of the film's deep reflexivity. Both of them are reasoned, however, by figuring the interview as a deliberate misrepresentation. According to Lydall and Strecker, "instead of recognizing that Omali Inda's account was a conventionalized story of womanhood, Gardner treated it as though it were a factual commentary."[33] Commenting on this assertion, which he also cites in his text, Ruby argues that Gardner has conflated anthropological "truth" with "data."[34] Distinguishing between story and fact, or data and truth, Lydall and Strecker explain that although Omali Inda describes a Hamar Woman's process of socialization, she herself was never subject to its disciplinary tactics. Moreover, they argue that the observational sections illustrate the bits of interview they follow, putting forth a perspective that affirms Omali Inda's account.[35]
            It seems to me, however, that this critique is partially determined by an inability to grasp the film as mode of visual anthropology. Lydall and Strecker posit the effect of Gardner's treatment of Omali Inda's account, without addressing how it was achieved. Focusing on this gap suggests that the misrecognition of her story of others' experience as her own personal testimony is engendered by cinema's capacity to individuate the subjects it depicts, which is a function of the specificity of images and the principle of co-presentation. More specifically, the majority of the interview's duration is shot in close up. This fosters an extended contemplation of her face. Therefore, she becomes recognizable; she is the only member of the community we grasp as an individual because we can clearly differentiate her from the others. Also, typically the bits of the interview begin in long shot before zooming in to a close up. This stylistic feature allows us to see her beside her home, her habitual environment, which evokes domesticity, her role within the family ("she has always been a model wife,"[36] write Lydall and Strecker). Therefore, our apprehension of her―as the exemplary Hamar Woman, occupying her typical position within the culture―makes possible Lydall and Strecke's feeling that Gardner's mediation presented a story narrating the Hamar Woman's process of socialization as an account of lived experience.
            The film's central claim―that Hamar culture exhibits a gendered division of social experience―is a form of explanatory knowledge that emerges out of the gestalt of the film. This argument assumes the form of relational knowledge at the level of individual scenes, mainly those depicting the practice of everyday life. Put in terms of knowledge by acquaintance―within conceptual parameters delimited by material culture and the aesthetics of everyday life―the claim is that Hamar men's and women's experiences of sonic and corporeal rhythm, time, space, individual and intersubjective behaviour, and self-presentation are gendered. In other words, the film depicts female bodies of labour and domination and male bodies of play and repose. Commenting on the film's main theme, Gardner asserts that "[it] is an attempt to disclose not only the activities of the Hamar, but also the effect on mood and behaviour of a life governed by sexual inequality."[37] Karl G. Heider's reflections on the film illuminate the process of translation from relational knowledge to explanatory knowledge. The film, he writes, centres on "a particularly nonvisual subject," that is, "cultural attitudes and values."[38] He suggests, moreover, that the film examines this topic through contextualization, which is, according to him, the concept that "things or events must not be treated in isolation; they have meaning only in context." This conception resonates with MacDougall's definition of relational knowledge. Contextualization, Heider asserts, is furnished by the film's "meandering, often repetitive" form.[39] That is, the sections of the film depicting everyday life constitute a series of scenes iterating the dichotomy of the social experience of Hamar men and women.
            Hamar culture's gendered division of social experience obtains in two areas of inquiry: everyday actions and personal aesthetics. In terms of everyday actions, the majority of the time we see the women at work; by contrast, the men's time is split between work and recreational activities. For example, in the morning women head off to complete the day's tasks. Meanwhile, the men stand idly by their abodes; later, they play a game in the shade. Also, there is a qualitative difference in the kind of work each gender do. A Hamar woman's work conforms, in a sense, to Fordist logic―large tasks are subdivided into a series of smaller, simpler and more repetitive jobs―whereas a man's work resembles more so non-alienated, artisanal labour. The  forms of labour we see the women partake in include the process of making edible the sorghum plant, and the extraction of water from the sandy riverbed. The former involves stripping the grain off plant stocks and grinding it against a stone. Recalling Heider's analysis of the film's form, Peter Loizos writes that through the repeated articulation of the "Women grinding sorghum" motif, it "becomes a running metaphor for the gendered division of labour, for the integration of person in direct production, for bodily grace confirming lived-in acceptance of a gender role, and for the drudgery that is the lot of women in a male-dominated culture."[40] The way in which the process is depicted in the film reveals its sensorial and relational dimensions. For example, two tasks in the process exhibit sonic and corporeal repetition: the back-and-forth movement and the swish of sweeping the ground (one of the initial tasks, we learn earlier in the film, involved in the man's "domestication" of the woman), and the undulating thrust and scrape of grinding the grain. This conveys the idea that Hamar women's bodies are regimented. This practice of corporeal discipline is another means by which Hamar culture subjugates them. Moreover, through the principle of co-presentation the film grasps the social dynamic of the process: we simultaneously see one woman grinding grain, while another delivers her more of it, and tends to a child. The harvesting of the sorghum plant is also exemplary of the film's synaesthetic effect on the viewer. A series of shots depicting a woman scooping and pouring grain into a sack evoke the visual, aural and tactile qualities of the task, namely, the sensation of the bowl plunging into the grain, and the grain brushing up against the woman's hands. Women's labour is not only managed corporeally, it is also responsible to time: while Omali Inda is being interviewed we see her order other women to fetch water before the sun sets.
            By contrast, Hamar men's work is independent, relaxed, less regulated, and imaginative. The tasks we see the men perform include upkeep of a firearm, fabrication of a stool, and hunting for an ostrich. That the men's work is qualitatively different from the women's is reflected in their experience of doing it. In general, this experience manifests either an irregularly rhythmic or non-rhythmic physicality. Whether it is a man fixing a gun or whittling away at his stool, the film depicts the process as marked by pauses, breaks, moments of reflection on the task. There is no sense in which a goal has to be achieved by a deadline. During the ostrich hunt, the film figures the men's bodies as peripatetic. This freedom of movement is reflected in the cinematographic style. The camera lopes alongside the men, panning back and forth to capture visual phenomena as it happens to enter the frame. Even feeding cattle, a job ostensibly similar to those of the women, is experientially different. The scene in which this work is depicted, realized in an enervated, digressive style, not only shows the cattle's idle grazing, but also suggests that the men are equally idle, sometimes directing the livestock, other times fixing each other's hairstyles. Daily prayer, another practice of the everyday life of Hamar men, speaks to both the form of knowledge created by, and the features of the cinematic medium mobilized by, visual anthropology. The film's depiction of this mundane ritual marshals the principle of co-presentation to yield relational knowledge. We see men, sitting in a circle and reciting a prayer, its form a call and response evoking a sense of musicality. The prayer also involves spitting coffee, ingested from a bowl. Because of the specificity of the image, however, the coffee and its container not only convey their symbolic function, but also assert their brute materiality. "Inherently a theatrical piece of ritual," this practice, writes Loizos, "makes abundantly clear...the extent to which certain rituals are performances."[41]   
            The aesthetic dimension of the Hamar's social experience is also gendered. Loizos notes that the film not only depicts the women at work; we also see them at leisure, at play. However, he argues, this depiction of a time away from work is militated by the "Women grinding sorghum" motif, in that it conveys the idea that a Hamar women's lived experience, in comparison with that of a man's, is still consumed by labour. Moreover, some of the activities he outlines, as in, as he puts it, "playing a melodious phrase on a flute in the afternoon heat," seem to offer the women relief from the roles assigned to them by the patriarchal structure of the Hamar culture.[42] Yet I deviate from this perspective in that I argue that the Hamar woman's subjugation subtends other leisure activities, namely those centred on personal dress and cosmetics. In her interview, Omali Inda says that "they pound on neck rings and fill you up with things." What she is referring to is the process of socialization whereby metal rings are fastened around Hamar women's ankles, wrists and necks by hammering them shut. One of the film's most striking moments involves the way in which it evokes the ring's symbolic meaning―men's domination of women. Mobilizing the technique of the montage of attractions, Gardner cuts from the fixing of a ring onto a woman's neck to the branding of a cow, recalling the scene in Fritz Lang's Fury (1936) in which clucking chickens are juxtaposed with talking women. Moreover, the dual existence of the rings as both symbol and material thing speaks to the fact that their signification pervades the Hamar Woman's social experience, hovering just below the threshold of enunciability. For example, the film's depiction of Hamar women's work and leisure activities, namely grinding sorghum grain, and dancing at a ceremony, includes a focus on the rings they are adorned with. The aim of this is to show that the rings constantly assert their presence, that they are always felt by the women, both tactilely and aurally, in that they emit a rhythmic rattle during these activities. Therefore, the film posits that they are perpetual reminders of the woman's servitude. Yoking the symbolic meaning from everyday cultural objects is a preoccupation of Gardner's filmmaking. Commenting on this tendency, he says that "finding small and insignificant items to draw from the actual world... that can signify more than themselves has seemed to me one of the few ways there are to convey meaning pictorially in films."[43]
            The film also manifests a link between the dress of a member of the Hamar community and her work. A woman's dress, for example, embodies her life of labour. Several times throughout the film's duration we see a woman walking along a path, clothed in a heavy dress adorned with many rings, as well as other decorative ornaments, transporting jugs―either fixed to a cloth strip and slung over her shoulder, attached to her garment or carried by hand―and often a child. Hamar women, then, are literally weighed down by the sensory-aesthetic mark of their culture's patriarchal structure. By contrast, Hamar men's clothing is light and minimal. This corresponds to the practice of their everyday lives: typically, they are not burdened by arduous work; they exercise unimpeded mobility; they are free to apply themselves to their artisanal tasks, lounge and play games, or roam.
            Lydall and Strecker's, and Ruby's critiques of the film, which I introduced earlier, can be explicated and mitigated by illustrating two features of the film that designate it as a mode of visual anthropology: the mode of reception it elicits, and the deep reflexivity it exemplifies. But first, I will elaborate on their principle claims: according to Lydall and Strecker, the film's portrayal of the Hamar culture's gendered division of social experience "derives from [Gardner's] own view." Furthermore, they argue, the film disingenuously puts forward this view as "'an accurate portrayal of the essence of Hamer [sic] traditional life.'" They also find Gardner's use of formal strategies, such as the arresting juxtaposition I illustrated earlier, to be problematic, in that they "[succeed] in distorting rather than recreating the meaning and rhythm of Hamar life." Ultimately, they implicate the film in the practice of using ethnography "to indulge in prejudiced visions that have little to do with the people under 'study.'"[44] Ruby echoes the thrust of Lydall and Strecker's argument, adding: "The artistic vision of Gardner as auteur dominated the project."[45] It seems to me, however, that these criticisms, although valid in that the film, in the last instance, fails to depict Hamar culture on its own terms, represent something of a category error. That is, they do not grasp the fact that as a mode of visual anthropology the film exercises an anthropological methodology and form of knowledge alternative to that of the dominant paradigm of the anthropological discipline. Recall that, according to MacDougall, the form of knowledge produced by visual anthropology places a greater interpretative obligation on the spectator―it requires her to mobilize a cinematic imagination. This further accounts, I think, for the misreadings of Omali Inda's interview I posited earlier. Loizos' analysis of Lydall and Strecker's critique speaks to my assertion. Loizos writes, "[they] seemed to have been hoping for a conventional descriptive-analytic ethnographic film... Such a film tends to define and specify, to reduce uncertainty." He calls this type of film a "relatively closed text." By contrast, he argues that Rivers of Sand is a "relatively open text" in that it furnishes the viewer with "puzzles, contexts for reflection, and [adds] to the list of questions [she] might have about human natures and human cultures."[46] Addressing the interpretive openness of his film, Gardner says, " I feel I am accountable for the particular [arrangement] called... Rivers of Sand but not for the meanings [it engenders]."[47]
            Moreover, it seems to me that examining critiques of the film under visual anthropology's paradigm effects a redistribution of the sensible, an idea put forth by Jacques Rancière.[48] That is, from this alternative episteme, an ethical weakness ascribed to the film, such as the presence of an authorial vision, becomes a virtue. In fact, that is how MacDougall's concept of deep reflexivity qualifies this feature. Deep reflexivity reflects an awareness of the unavoidable fact that anthropological practice involves a mediation of other cultures. In her interview with Gardner, Barbash notes that translation of a subject's speech is always determined by the ideological position of the translator. In response, Gardner adds that translation is a process that is not only mediated by ideology, but also by other "filters" such as "personality." He goes on to say, "I think the important thing is that knowing this about translation, whether in the narrow sense of rendering verse from one language to another or in the larger sense of portraying an entire culture in images, should not paralyze the effort to do all these things in the most discerning and sensitive way possible."[49] Rivers of Sand's deep reflexivity, I think, addresses this central issue of ethnographic filmmaking in that it makes visible its process of mediation by foregrounding the fact that it is authored. The film's depiction of the Hamar's harvest dance ceremony exemplifies its deep reflexivity. Many features of the scene point to Gardner's presence behind the camera. For example, it takes place at night, and yet it is illuminated wholly by the camera's light. Therefore, the camera is confined to picking up only portions, details, or snatches of action. Moreover, the camera swings erratically, fixating on a sudden movement. The composition's are chaotic―bodies move towards the camera, dominate its view, and block out the light. Also, a freeze frame highlights a man's coat lifting off his body as he dances. These formal features suggest that Gardner was absorbed in the lived experience of the event; they represent attempts to inscribe the film with the affect of its unfolding on his sensorium. 


[1] David MacDougall, "Visual Anthropology and the Ways of Knowing," in Transcultural Cinema, ed. Lucien Taylor (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), 76-77.
[2] ibid., 78.
[3] ibid., 69.
[4] ibid., 70-71.
[5] David MacDougall, "Anthropology's Lost Vision," in Film, Ethnography, and the Senses: The Corporeal Image (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 245.
[6] ibid., 246.
[7] MacDougall 2006, 247.
[8] MacDougall 1998, 79.
[9] ibid., 80-81.
[10] ibid., 82.
[11] ibid., 84.
[12] ibid., 87.
[13] ibid., 89.
[14] ibid.
[15] ibid., 86.
[16] ibid., 87.
[17] David MacDougall, "Voice and Vision," in Film, Ethnography, and the Senses: The Corporeal Image (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 42.
[18] ibid., 40-42.
[19] ibid., 42.
[20] ibid., 49.
[21] ibid., 50.
[22] ibid., 50-52.
[23] ibid., 54-55.
[24] ibid., 55-56.
[25] ibid., 59.
[26] ibid., 58-59.
[27] David MacDougall, "New Principles of Visual Anthropology," in Film, Ethnography, and the Senses: The Corporeal Image (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 269.
[28] ibid., 272.
[29] Charles Warren, "The Music of Robert Gardner," in The Cinema of Robert Gardner, ed. Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Taylor (Oxford: Berg, 2007), 25.
[30] Ilisa Barbash, "Out of Words: A conversation with Robert Gardner," in The Cinema of Robert Gardner, ed. Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Taylor (Oxford: Berg, 2007), 107.
[31] Jean Lydall and Ivo Strecker, "A Critique Of Lionel Bender's Review Of Rivers of Sand." American Anthropologist, New Series vol. 80, no. 4 (December 1978): 945.
[32] Jay Ruby, "An Anthropological Critique of the Films Of Robert Gardner," Journal of Film and Video vol. 43, no. 4 (Winter 1991): 11.
[33] Lydall and Strecker, 945.
[34] Ruby, 12.
[35] Lydall and Strecker, 945.
[36] ibid.
[37] Peter Loizos, "Robert Gardner's Rivers of Sand: Toward a Reappraisal," in Fields of Vision: Essays in Film Studies, Visual Anthropology and Photography, ed. Leslie Devereaux and Roger Hillman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 316.
[38] Karl G. Heider, Ethnographic Film (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1976), 36.
[39] ibid., 75-76.
[40] Loizos, 320.
[41] Loizos, 321.
[42] ibid., 319.
[43] Barbash, 95.
[44] Lydall and Strecker, 945.
[45] Ruby, 11.
[46] Loizos, 316.
[47] Barbash, 113.
[48] Jacques Rancière, "The Emancipated Spectator," Artforum (March 2007): 277.
[49] Barbash, 103.