[I created this remix video as an example of the kind of creative work the students in my Media Theory class could do for their final project. Full description of the assignment can be found here.]

The historical film drama Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi, 2016) depicts how the work at NASA of three black women — Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan — helped launch the first American man into orbit. Although all three women start in the West Area Computing unit, the segregated group of black women computers, Katherine and Mary are soon picked to join the Space Task Group and the space capsule engineering team, respectively. Following these two women’s narratives of extraordinary feats, the film ends up giving Dorothy’s story the least amount of screen time, often relegating it as metonym for the stories of the collective of black women computers.

The Other Hidden Figures is remix short that asks, what narrative might we tell if we focus our attention on the collective over the individual genius? Dorothy’s story arc guides us through this question. She initially asserts that “success for one of us is success for all” yet soon comes to realize that individual success alone does not effect long-lasting, structural change. Instead, she turns her attention to obtaining access to resources and knowledge for the entire group of black women and, during a crucial moment, to leveraging her own position to lift up all her colleagues.

In her article “Javascript is for Girls,” Miriam Posner demonstrates that the history of computing includes forms of gender policing, such as denigrating some types of work as less technically sophisticated and restricting credentials for those types considered more sophisticated. We see this dynamic play out in the stories of the black women computers. The white characters within the film consider the work of these women to be the least sophisticated tasks even though they are integral to launching a man into orbit. The film narrative itself reflects this dynamic by sidelining the computers in terms of screen time.

Innovation, or the relentless privileging of the new, also functions to marginalize and ostracize the black women computers. NASA’s fascination with an electronic computer that could replace the human computers ignores the fact that the IBM relies on humans to program it. Dorothy and her team teach themselves to code and further demonstrate the value that the maintainers have to the functioning of technology in society. As Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell argue, “innovation thinking” produces hero-worshipping, which ignores the important labor of minority low-wage workers that repair and maintain technologies that already exist.

Classical narrative film style necessitates individual protagonists who face yet overcome adversity. These individuals function as points of identification for the spectators. In other words, each audience member could potentially see themselves as the protagonist in the film. The ideologies privileged in this classical narrative style are individualistic rather than collective, favoring the exception over the ordinary. The Other Hidden Figures excavates the potential of the collective within the individual genius narrative. It shows how the rest of the black women computers in Hidden Figures also have a story of triumph that they achieve not because of extraordinary genius but through education, everyday work, and resistance to exclusionary measures.

The formal constraints on this remix video are meant to signal its ideological project. The Other Hidden Figures consists only of scene excerpts featuring a collective (i.e. two or more) of black women, or of those when Dorothy alone is working towards the benefit of all the computers. Edited between these excerpts are blank screens with a time code signifying the amount of time between scenes within the original film. The duration of the black screens scales down this time, one minute to one second. The 128 minutes of the original feature thus become merely 18 minutes. Despite the scaling down, allowing viewers to sit through the blank screens nonetheless should invite reflection on the length of the gaps that are left when we focus on collectives working together and remove scenes of extraordinary individual geniuses, heteronormative romance, and white men “solving racism” by hammering down a bathroom sign — a few examples of the tropes of classical narrative style.

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This month marks the publication of my article “The Datalogical Drug Mule” in the Data issue of Feminist Media Histories.

This article had a varied lifetime, first as a final paper for a media theory class, then as an award-winning conference paper for the International Communication Association, and finally as a journal publication.

In short, the article argues that borders have always functioned algorithmically, a feature that has only intensified with the spread of information and communication technologies. Yet, despite this technological sophistication, the functioning of borders still relies heavily on human physical interaction. The article traces these issues by staging a fictional travelogue of a drug mule based on official documents and anecdotal evidence.

Feminist Media Histories editor Shelley Stamp interviewed me and other authors in the issue about our articles for the FMH podcast. You can hear the podcast episode here: https://soundcloud.com/user-161032629/data-vol-3-no-3


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.

In my role as Graduate Student Representative, for this year’s Society of Cinema and Media Studies conference I organized a workshop on graduate student labor titled “A Job (Un)like Any Other: Graduate School as Academic Labor.”

680x-1The impetus for this workshop was to disabuse the notion that graduate school is merely training for a career to come. The allusions to professionalization skills or the impending job market signal that the “job” part of academia lies after grad school. Yet this hides the fact that grad students are already workers in many ways, whether they are working as teaching or research assistants, interning at institutions relevant to their research, or taking on extra jobs to make ends meet. These appointments come with their own set of complications, adding stress to the tasks of meeting program requirements, finishing a dissertation, and networking professionally.

There are pros and cons to being both an employee and a worker-in-training. Working as a teaching assistant, for instance, gives us experience for a future career as a teacher as well as a better sense on how to be successful student. Likewise, taking a part-time job outside of academia allows for a break from scholarly thinking and an extra source of income. But these perks can also come at a high price. A central focus of the workshop was therefore the importance of labor organizing at the graduate level, but it also broadly addressed the different types of tasks and remunerated jobs undertaken during graduate school that impact young scholars’ later careers.

The workshop featured a mix of early career and seasoned scholars at private and public universities. Vicki Mayer (Tulane University) spoke both of her experiences organizing unions while she was a graduate student at UC San Diego and of the challenges of incentivizing her students to pursue these activities as an administrative member at Tulane. Brady Fletcher (New York University) talked at length about his involvement in the recent negotiations between NYU’s graduate student union and the university administration. Kelli Marshall (DePaul University), who has written extensively about her experiences on the job market and her work as part-time professor, shared her perspectives on the possibilities and pitfalls of working outside the tenure-track stream. Laila Shereen Sakr (University of California, Santa Barbara) spoke passionately about not assuming the current structures of the university should remain unchallenged.

The conversation was both productive and instructive. The four panelists also provided insights into the challenges of work/life balance, the strategies for organizing in academia (talk about dental coverage!), and possible collaborations between faculty and students. The audience in attendance was very participative, sharing their own experiences and insights into these topics from different stages in their career .

Watch the entire workshop below:


Update (Aug. 23, 2016): the decision by the National Labor Relations Board declaring graduate students at private universities as employees is an encouraging move towards addressing some of the challenges raised in the workshop.

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.

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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)!

In my last post I argued for a form of “distant reading” that could be applied to film studies, and claimed that such a practice could be just as useful as our current close reading practices. In this post I continue this line of argumentation by considering one such way in which distant reading could take place in film studies: by analyzing systems and patterns across sets of films.

Montage Strikes Back

The Soviet formalists, pioneers in film theory and praxis, are making a comeback. Sure, their influence and canonical status within the discipline means they’ve never left, but there’s a peculiar form of resonance in the fact that the first projects of digital analysis of films harken back to those early film practitioners. Everything old is new again, if you will. I am referring specifically to the Digital Formalism project, a collaborative venture between the Austrian Film Museum, the University of Vienna, and the Vienna University of Technology that between 2007 and 2010 took the Vienna Vertov Collection and developed computational tools to aid in the analysis of Dziga Vertov’s works. Resulting from this project, interesting discussions on issues such as the difficulties of digitizing archival films and meta-data annotation of shots of urban landscapes have come out. Most notably for this discussion on distant watching, this project illustrates the challenges facing any sort of visual analysis of films using computers: How do we make legible for computational analysis the multiplicity of semantic, compositional, and technical aspects of one specific shot? For the Digital Formalism project this consisted of using algorithms for minor tasks such as detecting intertitles and human input for more complicated tasks such as motion tracking and image composition. Read More