Bert Rebhandl: Hello everybody. I’d like to start by briefly introducing the participants. From California, we have Nina Menkes, a filmmaker and film scholar, who will be part of this year’s Berlinale with her new film BRAINWASHED: SEX CAMERA POWER. From Vienna, we have Djamila Grandits, a film curator and programmer for several festivals; she’s actually calling us tonight from Dakar, Senegal. From Buffalo, New York, we have Girish Shambu, a film critic, film blogger and film scholar. And from Germany, I’m happy to welcome Christoph Hochhäusler, a filmmaker, who also teaches film directing at the DFFB film school here in Berlin. He also is a film blogger and co-editor of the film magazine Revolver. And finally, my name is Bert Rebhandl, I’m a film critic too and will be moderating this discussion.
We want to talk about how our perception of film history has changed in light of recent developments in society and politics. It has become less easy to see film history as a potentially endless field of interesting discoveries, or even to just be a fan of movies. Films are always based in the stereotypes of their time and often actively or even consciously promote racist or sexist positions. Cristina Nord, head of the Berlinale Forum, gave an example last year when she wrote about THIEF by Michael Mann, a film she used to like, although its problematic depiction of gender relations became impossible for her to overlook upon rewatching it. Michael Mann is often held in high regard as a stylist or even a formalist of cinema, and his case is interesting to understand certain problems of how to reappraise films today, after movements such as #MeToo or Black Lives Matter or postcolonial discourses have changed our perceptions profoundly. I would like to start by asking Nina to say a few words about her film and her view of film history today.
Nina Menkes: My film is called BRAINWASHED: SEX CAMERA POWER. It includes 175 film clips from 1896 to 2021, and it ties the gendering of shot design, specifically the objectivization of women, to the epidemic of sexual harassment and assault that we have, particularly in Hollywood, as well as employment discrimination against women, especially in the film industry. I never had a moment, say, of liking Godard and blocking out his sexism. My look back hasn’t changed. What has changed is the mainstream consciousness of how much was controlled by white heterosexual men, that the whole area of festivals, funding and distribution was controlled by them, certainly in Hollywood. Maybe Europa was a little better.
I had an intuitive revulsion for those films very early. My first feature, which I made on 16mm for 5000 dollars, is about a prostitute who hates her work. You only see her face, we never see her body, she never takes off her clothes. It was considered extremely radical. I never liked RAGING BULL, I haven’t seen THIEF by Michael Mann actually, but there are a million examples. In my film, I have literally 175 of them, a lot of them by the so-called great names like Godard and Hitchcock. I actually like Hitchcock, he plays with the issue, but that doesn’t mean that other people aren’t still influenced by the fact that his women are always these sexualized objects. We see it across race as well. Spike Lee, Gordon Parks Jr., Park Chan-wook, they do the exact same thing. One film that was shocking to revisit was LAST YEAR IN MARIENBAD by Alain Resnais. I was shown that film in high school and was completely wowed, I loved the cinematography, the editing, I loved how he played with time. When I reviewed it for BRAINWASHED, I suddenly realized that the entire soundtrack is made up of this man talking about his obsession with this woman, wall to wall. The woman is Delphine Seyrig, and she looks beautiful and nothing else, she doesn’t have much of a personality, she is just a beautiful woman. I am aware that many people are stunned when they see my film. But I personally was never conned.
BR: Djamila, how would you say things have changed recently. How do you look at film history?
Djamila Grandits: You’re right in saying things have changed. Its freeing in a way. I am part of this curators’ collective where we have totally different ideas and necessities that we want to share and that we want to apply in communicating film. In my work in the collective, it is much more about rethinking accessibility and how to communicate film. We organize open-air cinema screenings in a public space (Karlsplatz in Vienna) where we try to lower the barriers. There is no entrance fee, and we ask ourselves whose stories should be placed at the center of these screenings, in the very center of the city itself? And what communities should we approach, how do we start a dialogue with our audiences?
In festival programming on the other hand, there are many more industrial necessities, like wanting to have recent films, a diversity of positions and countries of production, which is not always that easy considering that most co-productions are done with France or Belgium. How to label a film in terms of where is it from is not always easy when we talk about a diversity of expressions. Has it become easier? There are lots of responsibilities, but also lots of pragmatic decisions. There is a lot of effort needed to make sure calls for entry circulate and make submissions possible. It’s a challenge for festivals to provide a platform for applicants who might not already be so integrated into the industry. That is why I don’t like the word discovery, because there is also a very colonial idea behind it. People and institutions are becoming more sensitized when it comes to anti-racism, anti-discrimination, when it comes to gender roles and the necessity of diversity. You mentioned #MeToo and Black Lives Matter as key events that made larger shifts possible, but the ongoing violence has always been there. I sometimes feel that many institutions now realize that they need a change in perspective, but have not yet reached the point of questioning their precise motivation for this shift, aside from pressure in society. It would be good if people in the industry would take the time to answer such questions. Why do we want different content, why do we want a shift in discourse and what is our actual role in it? It’s not about just about going along with diversity management, which is close to tokenism, it’s also about questioning well-intended but still often violent behavior that is a reproduction of violence.