Film Studies

The Global Media Festival was a one-night screening of international shorts organized and presented by the students enrolled in my Global Media Cultures course during fall 2019.

For the last four weeks of the course, students worked in groups to watch and analyze the shorts; write critical introductions and film reviews; and plan a promotional campaign for the event. This collaborative effort built on the topics studied in the course (migration, translation, adaptation, global inequality) and on semester-long class discussions on the role of media in addressing these topics.

On the evening of November 20, 2019, we held the event at the main auditorium at the University of Texas at Dallas. In addition to the members of the class and their friends, members of the ATEC community also showed up. Each group had selected one person to introduce their short, and I gave a brief introduction at the beginning explaining the project and the work students had put into it. Read a digital copy of the festival program.

Though I intend to write a more thorough debrief and reflection on the event and the assignment, preliminarily I can say that it was a success in terms of its stated goals.

During our class debrief, students stated that among the key advantages of organizing an event as a final assignment was the fact that it was a public-facing project. Rather than a paper submission which most felt no one else would care about (beyond the professor assigning a grade), students appreciated the opportunity to bring partners, friends, and family members to the event. A few even mentioned that the event itself helped explain to their social circles some of the ideas we had discussed in class by referring to the screened shorts.

Several students also admitted that they appreciated having the time to work on the planning and writing in class. I specifically wanted this to be the case in order to provide guidance and support, and to alleviate the pressure of having to coordinate groups of five people outside of class.

Akin to a film festival, each group wrote a review of the short film tying it to the issues raised in class. These reviews were available for attendees to read after the event, and can also be accessed here:

  1. The Silence
  2. Biidaaban
  3. Ahalya
  4. Paradise
  5. The Above

La+revolucion+Poster_web-2This spring I had the opportunity to program a film screening at UC Santa Barbara’s Pollock Theater and chose La Revolución de los Alcatraces (2013), an award-winning documentary by Mexican filmmaker Luciana Kaplan.

La Revolución tells the story of Eufrosina Cruz Mendoza, a native of Santa María Quiegolani, a small indigenous community in southern Oaxaca, Mexico. Eufrosina ran for town mayor in 2007, but her election was invalidated because of a “usos y costumbres” ruling — a legal stature that allows indigenous communities to set their local traditions as law — that dictated women were not allowed to be elected to office. The film follows her subsequent personal crusade not only to overturn such a ruling but also to expand the opportunities for women across Oaxaca’s indigenous communities. By questioning the hypocrisies of a political system that allows indigenous rights only when it is convenient for national parties, Eufrosina soon becomes an icon of gender and indigenous rights in her state, albeit at continuous personal expense.

This film portrays Eufrosina’s personal journey and activist awakening and ends with when she accepts a position in the state legislature as a member of the PAN, the conservative party. Since then, her roles have expanded, as she is now the President of the Committee for Indigenous Affairs in the Mexican Congress. In September 2014, she was part of the delegation that accompanied President Peña Nieto to the UN’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. She used that opportunity to convince the President to support her bill, nicknamed Ley Eufrosina, which modified the “usos y costumbres” stature so it could not be used to discriminate based on gender or race. The bill was approved by Congress a month later.

Screening La Revolución was important for a variety of reasons. It was part of an undergraduate Mexican Film and Television seminar at UC Santa Barbara whose emphasis was on productions beyond the globally recognized Mexican auteurs. Bringing Luciana Kaplan to the class and to the Pollock to present her film showcased the diversity of voices in Mexican screen media. Kaplan was a particularly illuminating person since she is also the coordinator of the Documentary Program at the Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica (CCC), one of Mexico’s main cinema schools. Her talks provided insights into filmmaking, teaching, and funding practices in the country — including the fact that most documentary filmmakers in Mexico are women.

The event was also important because of how the film speaks to the current political climate in the United States, particularly the involvement of minorities in politics and the 2016 presidential election. In my post-screening interview with Kaplan, we spent some time discussing the title change from Spanish to English, from “The Revolution of the Calla Lilies” to “Eufrosina’s Revolution,” as symptomatic of the tension between the individual pursuing political change and the revolutionary sentiment of a community. This also led us to think about the limits of identity politics. It was inevitable to draw parallels between this story and the presidential hopefuls calling for a political revolution or for the symbolic importance of a woman in a leadership position. And, finally, about the role of artists and academics in interrogating these ideals.

Watch the entire post-screening interview below.

Snowpiercer Poster

Two trains have commanded significant attention this past summer: the Snowpiercer, the fictional train in Bong Joon-ho’s post-apocalyptic film, and “La Bestia”, the freight train travelling from Mexico’s southern border to Mexico City. The first holds the last survivors of a global climatic catastrophe; the second holds hundreds of Central Americans hoping to immigrate to the United States. For these migrants, like the people at the back of the Snowpiercer, living conditions are deplorable. In his film, Bong introduces us to the passengers in a lineup during a routine check as they sit down, one row at a time, in a seemingly interminable fashion. As the images below show, the passengers of La Bestia are less orderly, huddling together as tightly as possible atop each freight car—after all, they are not supposed to be there. In both cases, the threat of death is nearly unbearable: for the fictional passengers, at the hands of stormtroopers; for the migrants, at the hands of drug gangs. So here they are, these two disenfranchised groups, aboard a train that could very well kill them yet, paradoxically, is saving them from the more dangerous alternative awaiting them if they got off it—inhospitable tundra in one, abject poverty in the other.

Central American migrants on La Bestia

Hundreds of Central American migrants huddled atop the freight cars of La Bestia.

When did trains become figures of such precariousness? Although this favored symbol for modernity is not without its inherent sense of doom, as when Paul Virilio claims that the invention of the train is also the invention of derailment, the Snowpiercer and La Bestia are symbols of a crisis even before the potential wreckage of the machine. I suspect that what makes these two such powerful, harrowing figures relates to their allusion to movement devoid of progress, to time without change. Consider this opposing picture of trains invoked by writer Jessica Gross in a recent essay:

There is comfort in the certainty of these arrangements. […] Train time is found time. My main job is to be transported; any reading or writing is extracurricular. The looming pressure of expectation dissolves. And the movement of a train conjures the ultimate sense of protection—being a baby, rocked in a bassinet.

Surely this view is shared not only by writers—especially those signing up for Amtrak’s writer-in-residence program—but also by the thousands of people who prefer trains as their means of transportation. Trains can in fact be endless sources of joy and amusement. Perhaps this is why the Snowpiercer and La Bestia present quite the contrasting image: the movement of these trains does not conjure the ultimate sense of protection, but the constant sense of adversity; train time is not found time, but stolen time; the passengers’ main job is not to be transported, but to survive.

Read More

On February 1998, the New York Times decreed that Blockbuster Video had established itself as the main video rental outlet, pushing all other independent video retailers into marginal and niche markets. Fifteen years later, the closure of the last Blockbuster locations still in operation heralded the end of an era, where online streaming services had replaced video stores as the preferred method of film distribution. But this is hardly the whole story.

SCMS Seattle Conference Header

During the upcoming Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Seattle, I will be chairing a panel that takes a closer look at this narrative and proposes how various video cultures and communities arise, thrive and/or diversify in the 21st century. In his paper “’Are you guys closing?’ – Video-clubs and the ‘Third World of the internet’”, Matthias Mushinski (Columbia University) looks at cinephile consumers and sellers in Montreal, noting how the dual facts of limited content and Canada’s bandwidth caps challenge the notion that “everything is available” online. Similarly, my paper “What is (in) a diasporic video store?” considers how to incorporate informal and unconventional retail points—particularly those that cater to immigrant communities—into scholarship on media distribution and diasporic cinemas.

Finally, Michael O’Brien’s (UT Austin) paper “Limited Release: Online Cine-clubs and Digital Archives” approaches the legacy of video clubs as practices of community building, and tracks how these practices are perpetuated in private BitTorrent trackers. In different ways, all of these papers take concepts such as cinephilia, film communities, and home film cultures, and set them alongside new work on distribution technologies and film consumption practices, to illustrate the myriad ways in which the transition to digital is ongoing—and anything but smooth.

Our panel respondent will be Professor Daniel Herbert (U of Michigan), whose recently released book Videoland: Movie Culture at the American Video Store charts the rise and fall of the rental industry between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, when video stores served a vital function in the sustenance of movie culture.

Given last year’s announcement of Blockbuster’s closure, the current discussions about ISP speeds for online streaming, and the continuous consolidation of production studios, I expect there to be a lively discussion not only from the presenters but also with the audience. So if you’re also interested in talking about these topics, come join us on Thursday March 20 at 11:00 AM (session F6)!

¿Qué significará ver el cine “desde lejos”?

En este escrito quiero considerar cómo algo similar a lo que Franco Moretti ha llamado “la literatura vista desde lejos” (distant reading) en los estudios literarios podría funcionar en el estudio del cine. Si nuestro actual método para analizar películas es semejante al close reading, es decir, ver una película o una serie de películas y minuciosamente señalar las escenas que mejor representen los temas o características sobre los que estamos escribiendo, entonces, ¿qué tipo de método podríamos utilizar para considerar simultáneamente un gran número de películas a la vez? Asimismo, ¿qué tipo de proyecto de investigación podría requerir que usáramos este método?

Para abordar estas preguntas y considerar cómo podría existir un método para “ver desde lejos” el cine, permítanme comenzar por describir algunas herramientas digitales para el análisis del cine.

Análisis Digital de Películas

Si consideramos que el análisis de cada toma de una película es el equivalente cinematográfico al close reading, entonces el caso de Cinemetrics sirve como punto de partida hacia un análisis a distancia del cine. Creado por el historiador de cine Yuri Tsivian con un programa desarrollado por Gunars Civjans, Cinemetrics es una herramienta que ayuda a recolectar datos sobre la duración de cada toma de una película y a calcular estadísticas sobre estos datos. Desde su creación en 2005, Cinemetrics ha sido utilizado por investigadores interesados en cuestiones de estilo como, por ejemplo, los cambios en patrones de edición a través de la carrera de un cineasta. Su base de datos ha crecido constantemente gracias a las contribuciones de investigadores y actualmente contiene más de 13.000 entradas. Read More

What would it mean to “distantly watch” films?

In this post I am interested in considering how something akin to what Franco Moretti has called distant reading* in literary studies might function in film studies. If our current method of evidence gathering for film analysis is close reading—watching a film or a series of films minutely and picking moments that best represent the characteristics we intend to write about—then what kind of method would we require to simultaneously consider corpora of films? More importantly, what sort of project would necessitate that we undertake such a method?

To begin exploring how a distant reading method could exist in film studies, let me consider some existing digital tools for the analysis of films.

Digital Reading of Films

If we take the shot-by-shot analysis as the equivalent of cinematic close reading, then CineMetrics is a starting point in the execution of a film’s distant reading. Launched by film historian Yuri Tsivian with a program developed by Gunars Civjans, CineMetrics is a tool that aids in recording data about film shot lengths (and recently, types of shots), as well as drawing statistics from this data. Since its inception in 2005, CineMetrics has been used by scholars researching the history of film style by tracking, for instance, historical changes in editing patterns or across a filmmaker’s corpus. Its database has steadily grown with the help of researchers’ contributions, currently standing at over 13,000 entries. CineMetrics essentially provides a macro perspective of one of the constituent elements of a film—its shots—by presenting them as statistic data, and allows for comparative analysis at a distance. In fact, Lev Manovich’s Software Studies Initiative already did so in 2008 with the data that was available then.

Barcode created from El Infierno (2010)

Another way for looking at a film as a whole made up of representative elements from its constitutive shots is the popular movie barcode visualizations. These barcodes are created by taking each frame from the film and reducing it to a bar one pixel wide, which reduces the entire color distribution of that frame to its most predominant one. These individual bars are then put together to provide an overview of the color palette of the film in sequential order. The Tumblr that popularized these barcodes features dozens of examples, but any one film could be made into a barcode with a simple program (still in beta) or following these step by step instructions. Finally, and decidedly different, there’s the Audio-visual Cinematic Toolbox for Interaction, Organization, and Navigation (ACTION) from the Bregman Lab at Dartmouth. Currently in its initial phase, ACTION creates automatic analysis routines to extract image and sound raw data from films, and then provides a work bench to study this data.


This overview of digital tools for film reading is ordered from that which requires the most human input and guidance to that which requires the least. CineMetrics, in its most current incarnation, is still very much dependent on the researcher to watch a film while simultaneously recording the values needed for analysis. Movie barcodes can be produced automatically, but there’s a lot of refining needed in the inputs for the results to be anything other than colorful bars. Read More

As I mentioned in a previous post, this term I am taking an introductory grad course on digital humanities, and as part of it, I will be writing a series of posts relating this area of humanistic inquiry to the field of media studies. I have chosen to begin exploring these intersections by zeroing in on film studies in particular, for two reasons. First, my educational background is in film studies so I expect having a grounding in one area will be helpful in exploring the other. Second, film studies is notoriously positioned for (if not already in the midst of) a disciplinary self-transformation as a result of the rise of new media studies, the dominance of digital film making, and the general downsizing of humanities in academia. In a way, I expect these posts to serve as a micro level attempt to support the work of the 4Humanities group, which uses digital-based projects to advocate for the humanities at large.

These posts will be centered around what I’m calling the problems of film—problems understood both as the struggles film scholars face as the discipline transforms and as the research questions at stake that film scholars seek to solve. Although I will not presuppose nor argue for a medium specificity, I will focus on questions that I see as more relevant—and, in the face of the alarmist “death of film” debate, more pressing—to film studies than other areas of what could be widely considered media studies. Given the time and scale restrictions provided by constant blog posting as well as the fact that I am still getting to know the tools used in digital humanities, I expect the posts to be more like practice runs than finished products. However, I hope that, by making these public, I will be able to reach others working or thinking through these same issues—or inspire those who aren’t into doing so—and thereby engage in a conversation about the changing times in film studies, and whether digital humanities can play a part in these.


Telescoping, or Distant Reading for Film Studies
Telescopia, o ¿Como Ver al Cine Desde Lejos?
Telescoping, Part Two: How to (Not) Watch One Million Moving Images