Constantine Nakassis on his book, Onscreen/Offscreen

Interview by Chris Ball

https://utorontopress.com/9781487541804

Christopher Ball: Onscreen/Offscreen tracks Tamil film of the first decade and a half of the 2000s through analysis of different feature films, including interviews with actors, directors, and audience members, and ethnography of filmmaking and reception. This approach shows the intertextuality that ties together Tamil cinema, in spite of its own internal divisions between “class” and “mass,” “film” and “cinema.” At the same time, Chapters 1 to 4 deal, in turn, with the narrative figures “the hero,” “the heroine,” “the fool/jester,” and lastly “the auteur/director.” Can you say something about how as an author you discerned the presentation of your analysis and your interaction with, and presentation of, these characters?

Constantine V. Nakassis: Thanks for this question, Chris and for engaging with the book! This book is based on my work on the Tamil cinema of South India dating back to my very first fieldwork as a graduate student almost twenty years ago. But I didn’t want to write an ethnography of the industry per se. Rather, I had certain theoretical issues – for example, about the ontology of the image, its performativity, about spectatorship, the production format of images, realism – that I wanted to explore and elaborate on in each chapter of the book via the ethnographic analysis of a particular film or set of films. I also think having worked on Tamil cinema for an extended time gave me a longitudinal perspective that was invaluable in shaping how the book developed and how I came to think about its internal organization. From my first work in the early and mid 2000s to my dissertation work in the late 2000s to post-PhD work in the 2010s, I repeatedly encountered claims and desires for a “new” realist (“class”) cinema – and the announcement that it had (almost!) arrived – coupled with a lament about the untimely performativity of fantastical images of the industry’s larger-than-life “mass” heroes; as I came to realize, this ambivalence was a constitutive feature of the political field of images, despite whatever real changes there were across this time period (and before). Why and to what effects?

This question helped frame the book, specifically splitting it into two parts: the first (“Presence/Representation”) primarily concerning the presence of images and the second (“Representation/Presence”) their representationality. Each of those two parts then split into two chapters: Chapter 1 focusing on the performative presence of images of so-called mass heroes and Chapter 2 of heroines and dancers (whose presence manifests as a kind of negative, sexualizing stigma), and Chapters 3 and 4 focusing on attempts in the industry to create representationalist images, either in the mode of parody (of heroes) or realist, director-anchored films. But if Part I focuses on the insistent presence of the image, and how this traverses onscreen and offscreen (the image spilling beyond the screen, but also the social getting introjected into the film text), each of the cases also feature a countermovement, where such images get framed representationally by their directors, causing an interesting kind of friction internal to the image. Part II, by contrast, explores how filmmakers and other stakeholders to the image attempt to bracket and denude the image’s performativity, often by putting the hero under (narrative) erasure. But even in doing so, a certain kind of performativity bubbles through the citational frame. How is that managed? And to what ends?

While I didn’t know that the book would take this form when I was doing my fieldwork, I did know that there were certain incidents, or films, or industry dynamics that came up in my research that I wanted to understand and unpack: like in what became Chapter 1, where a slap in a film scene caused an uproar among fans because it involved a junior actor playing a character who slaps another character played by a huge hero-star, Ajith Kumar; or, in Chapter 3, the first full-on spoof in the industry, Thamizh Padam (‘Tamil Film’) or, in Chapter 4, the outcrop of small-budget “realist” films in the 2000s; or, in Chapter 2, the fact that most heroine-actresses in postmillennial Tamil cinema are not considered ethnolinguistically Tamil. As I worked through these various incidents and films and dynamics, I saw how they spoke to certain theoretical issues that I kept circling around; in particular, this issue of representationality and performativity. 

This had another effect, which is that certain characters – the hero, heroine, the comedian, the director – came to the fore in each chapter. This wasn’t by design, but it had to do with the fact that each of these characters is a critical node on which semiotic dynamics/achievements like representationality/performativity are themselves reflexively centered in the Tamil cinema: the hero and heroine as sites of (positive and negative) plenitude and performative presence, the comedian as piercing that plenitude with parodic self-reflexive humor, and the director as an alternate site of authority over filmic and cinematic semiosis. Here, too, emerged something else that became a central preoccupation of the book, the question of who or what is responsible for the image (a Goffmanian question of the politics of the production format). In certain moments we see the actors – those animating heroes and heroines and comedians – held responsible for the images in which they appear (as presencing them in some way); but at other moments, it is the opposite, where the director holds the burden for the image (as representing their vision or agenda or whatever). So how and when does one or the other (or both or neither) happen? And what follows from this? 

Chris Ball: As you were just saying, the play of representation and performativity is a central theme of Onscreen/Offscreen. In attempting to bring together linguistic anthropology and film studies, you wade into territory that is often characterized by a rejection of “linguistic” or “representationalist” accounts of filmic or other image texts. How did the framing of realist representation and performative presence as distinct but connected, indeed complexing mutually implicating, allow you to reframe such divisions or disciplinary impasses?

Constantine V. Nakassis: Yeah, it’s true that American cinema and media studies, but also visual and media anthropology, often pit “language” (or “representation”) and “image” against each other; and along this axis of difference (as Susan Gal and Judy Irvine put it) a whole host of other contrasts cluster: logic/affect, mediated/immediate, aural/visual, sensuous/abstract, and so on and so forth. In film studies, I think that this had to do with the limits and failures of structuralism, which invested so deeply in the notion of a “film language.” There is something so ironic in this, of course, since what such structuralisms-beyond-language did was to take what is unique about language and then ask how it could be used to illuminate other semiotic systems. But the whole thing was bound to fail, definitionally! In film studies, scholars like Christian Metz realized this contradiction at the very outset, but they gave it a try anyway and working through the failures pushed into new territory (for example, by coming to think with Benveniste on enunciation) that interestingly resonated with what was going on in linguistic anthropology (not that anyone realized this at the time, since they weren’t reading each other’s work).

In any case, and by contrast, in the US, this failure became a reason to throw the semiotic baby out with the semiological bathwater. But for me, the very division of image versus language is misguided from the outset; it’s a semiotic ideology, as Webb Keane calls it. The more interesting move, it seems to me, is to treat semiotic ideologies (like this one) as ethnographic components of how people experience semiosis, and thus how semiosis itself unfolds. If seen in this way, then we can start to ask, well, how and under what conditions does a film image represent and seem to stand apart from what it represents? And when does it performatively presence and act? When does the image seem to reach through the screen into the events of its happening and presence itself? And when is that possibility blocked, and the image and screen are kept “within” themselves via some proverbial fourth wall? Tamil cinema is rife with these performative perforations; but it’s also filled with realist representations too! And my point in the book is that an image isn’t necessarily one or the other but may be one or the other depending on the point of view, or maybe both at one and the same time, or at different times, and so on and so forth. And here is where things get interesting for me. Because what I found in the cases I looked at is that the image harbors both potentialities and tendencies, each brimming out of the screen, each in dialogue with the other, sometimes amplifying, sometimes dampening each other. So, there is a tussle and a multiplicity – a dialogism, indeed, a politics (and in the Tamil case, where actors often form populist political parties, a real electoral politics) – internal to the image. Yet when we try to study this, we realize that whatever is “inside” the image is the effect of semiotic processes (of entextualization and contextualization, in our technical jargon) that take place in a sort of constitutive “outside” to the image.

And this raised a further question for me: what kind of a thing is an image such that this is the case? And if this “is” – a question of “ontology” – is political, which it is (claims about “what is”are THE site of the political, aren’t they?!), then these semiotic questions take us directly into what I discuss in the book as an “ontological politics of the image.” Hence, to return to your question (sorry for the long tangent!), the book tries to provide a way thinking about cinema that allows us to get beyond the stale oppositions of image versus language, or of “film language.” Hopefully, this will resonate with folks in film and visual studies, and put them in touch with linguistic anthropology, and vice versa. It always struck me as a shame that there hasn’t been any meaningful traffic between these fields (since, at least, Sol Worth and Christian Metz), especially since both deal with the most complex of problems of meaning and each has developed incredibly sophisticated semiotic approaches to them. The book is trying to create that dialogue.

Chris Ball: I’d like to ask more about your concept of the “ontological politics of the image” and its potential links to debates in anthropology at large. You introduce the concept in the Introduction by questioning the givenness of the image as object, and by suggesting a pragmatic approach to the multiplicity of the image’s construction in varying sociohistorical and cultural contexts. The cross-cultural stability of the image, if we can hold on to something concrete, lies in its existence as a “political fact,” such that for filmmakers, critics, and viewers alike, in Chicago or Madurai, “Contestations about what an image is, is the very nature of images.” 

Constantine V. Nakassis: Right, exactly, and this connects up with what we were just talking about, this question of whether and when an image is a performative act or a realist representation; these, of course, are just two very simplified ways of talking about the heterogenous being of images; as we were saying, they are dimensions or potentialities or tendencies that get actualized in particular contexts in particular ways. And if such actualization is up for grabs, as I found it to be, then we need to be attending to the “ontological politics” (this being Annemarie Mol’s phrase) that condition the being and becoming of images. This, it seems to me, is the nature of images as we find them: stakeholders to images (makers, audiences, various institutions, including various organs the state; in India, e.g., the Censor Board) contest and shape what images come to be, what they should (or should not) be, and so on. So, there is a kind of semiotic relativity at the heart of the question of being. And this itself requires that we take a particular ontological position, a semiotic realism (as you yourself have argued in other contexts) that insists on the reality of generals – in this case, semiotic-cum-social facts – but sees them as (the outcomes of) dynamic processes. 

Chris Ball: So how does your approach to the contested construction of images and the possible multiplicity of their ontological status connect to wider trends in anthropological theory? I’m thinking about the Ontological Turn, obviously, but also about the general (post-)post-structuralist, post-colonial, post-modern, post-human, and so on, engagements with multiplicity, fractures, and frictions between worlds? What is your stake with this book in such conversations?

CVN: In this book, much more so than those trends in anthropological theory (e.g., the Ontological Turn), my discussion is in a direct conversation with the foundational film critic and theorist André Bazin and his “ontology of the photographic image.” This has and continues to be a central issue in film studies. So, my aim, in addressing the question of what an image is, is to reformulate the question of being through a pragmatist approach to semiosis, but also with attention to the open horizons of possibility, and relativity, as I was saying before, that ethnographic theory at its best can provide. To do so, then, I am thinking with, but also against, Bazin to ask, how can we reconceptualize the so-called “ontology of the photographic image” processually and ethnographically, from a disciplinary perch (linguistic anthropology) and empirical archive (commercial Tamil cinema) that has been very peripheral to these discussions? 

Of course, the so-called Ontological Turn, among other movements in anthropology, has also tried to decenter certain philosophical positions that also animate the (Bazinian) questions in film studies (i.e., there are common touchstones). And insofar as this is the case, there is a resonance there. (And, certainly, my uptake of Mol’s phrase also connects this work to actor network theory and Latour, if indirectly.) But there are also major differences between what I am doing and the Ontological Turn. For example, there is a kind of relativism in the Ontological Turn that I find problematic. And, as you’ve pointed out in a recent paper at the 2022 AAAs, (semiotic) relativity is not the same as (cultural/ontological) relativism. In fact, a comparative account of the relativity of languages or images (or physical processes, for that matter) demonstrates that there are general properties that undercut the strong relativism in certain versions of the Ontological Turn. Indeed, the fact of the multiple ontic tendencies within images that we were discussing a moment ago implies a set of processes that traverse “worlds” or what not; as I argue in the book, it implies a politics of being that produces that very ontic multiplicity.

It’s worth underlining that an ontology is an account or theory (-logy) of being (ōn, ont-); it is a claim on being. And to say an account – or theory or claim – is to imply a plurality (hence the political aspect!): ontologies and modes of being (in a dialectical relation, of course). But it’s a mistake, in my opinion, to think that for every “world” (or every “culture” or “epoch”) there an ontology (or “worldview”), or that for every medium there is a different mode of being, like analogue versus digital images, as some people have suggested in visual studies. And again, this is because the multiplicity of being is intrinsic or internal, and yet also distributed, extimate. It’s not a pluralism, and that’s because being is a dynamic political fact. 

Another implication of this is that while this book is about the Tamil cinema of South India, with a real serious consideration of its particularities, ultimately through theorizing those particularities the story is about much broader features, relations, and processes of images (and semiosis more generally), whether in film or otherwise, whether in Tamil Nadu or elsewhere. 

Chris Ball: You talk about realism throughout the book but approach it most directly in Chapter 4. You end up mostly agreeing with Bazin on cinematic realism, though you qualify that it is not because of an indexical trace of light between reality and (celluloid) film, but rather because the connection to the real is political. Realism is an achievement, an effect rather than a cause in this formulation. I’m struck by the similarity of this move to that which linguistic anthropology has been articulating with respect to language for a long time. Rather than starting with the assumption of language as an ontological object that is given, analysts have turned increasingly to articulate how multimodal communicative practices and their politics, together with their (metapragmatic) frames of interpretation, effectively yield familiar domains we label as grammar, or discourse, or language writ large. Does that analogy make sense, and did you think about that sort of cross modal iconicity, either taking a set of analytic tools from one domain such as linguistic anthropology to another like film studies, or claiming that language and image are after all similar, in writing the book?

Constantine V. Nakassis: Yes, it definitely makes sense! I am a linguistic anthropologist and Onscreen/Offscreen is a book of linguistic anthropology. In the book I call this a “linguistic anthropology of cinema,” and some amount of discussion is devoted to explaining what that phrase means. So, in one sense, I am treating cinema in ways similar to how linguistic anthropologists have approached “language,” and precisely how you characterize it. Part of what that means is transferring advances and tools made in one domain (“language”/discourse) to another (film/cinema). 

But I’m not sure if we should see this as an analogy, as if cinema was like language (or discourse), and thus one can extend linguistic anthropology outwards, as if its center was always and only language. Part of my discomfort with this way of stating it is that I don’t see my work as an application of linguistic anthropological tools to something else that is not proper to the field, as much as I see this as linguistic anthropology, period. And part of the reason I insist on this is because to not so insist (and to take the book as an application) would reinscribe a certain center of linguistic anthropology as the study of “language” “in” …, and then you can fill in the blank with all those substantives that we are familiar with (“culture,” “society,” “interaction,” “use/practice,” or whatever). Doing this recapitulates a picture of language—a formalist, referentialist, structuralist vision of language as autonomous, sui generis “system”—that the very move of adding the “in culture/society/interaction” is meant to deconstruct! So, part of what I try to show in Onscreen/Offscreen, and in other work, is why this is ultimately an unproductive gesture. Of course, it’s not untrue historically, since much of the field has been concerned with language in culture, society, and so on. But, as I’ve tried to argue, even when this seems to be the case, what we are studying in such cases is not language as such, but rather the limits of the very construct of language to capture semiosis in (and across) its contexts of happening; and further, that by pushing through language we open up all sorts of interesting horizons beyond where we started. And those horizons are what ground us (even if we always start from where we came). Hence my claim that Onscreen/Offscreen is a book of linguistic anthropology even though – and maybe especially because – what I am focused on is cinema (and not language, or speech, in films). 

But interestingly, what this also means is that this is a book that is not only about cinema. Rather, as you point out, and as I was saying earlier, it is trying to get at certain semiotic dynamics that are not medium-specific. I have come to realize that thinking in terms of medium specificity is a cul-de-sac. It is, at best, self-limiting and, at worst, reductive and essentialist. It may be productive for disciplinary political projects (to zone off some domain of study, say, language for linguistics, film for film studies, and so on and so forth), but intellectually it narrows thought. So I am absolutely not interested in purifying the (film) image and trying to define its uniqueness, or definitional specificity. That would just reproduce the very problematic, blinkered mode of inquiry that linguistic anthropology, in its critique of that very form of thinking as concerns language (focusing on what makes it peculiar and unique: its essence as a system for denotation), has rendered unstable and untenable. So, in moving outwards from the yoke of language to images, my aim is not to suggest that we rest there and call it a day. Rather, I would endorse Peirce’s metaphor for scientific inquiry as walking through a bog. We must plant our feet somewhere, but only to always have to pick up and move, for if we stand content too long in one place, we sink. We have to move forward and explore, in this case, looking for what traverses what has been categorized as film and language. Now, I don’t mean to collapse each to the other, or to deny that there may be specificities; rather, my aim is to open up a clearing for thought in ways that propel us forward and make connections with other fields. 

For me, this general attitude toward inquiry implies an open vision for the field, for a linguistic anthropology of …, where that ellipsis is to be filled with as many possible possessors of the genitive that we can find, from cinema to spam filters to painting to ethics to cryptocurrency to … . It can all be linguistic anthropology. And it is: our wonderful colleagues are already pursuing all these things and more! So, that ellipsis is an invitation for us to open up and for others to find their way in. From my point of view, we should be pitching a big tent, not policing the borders or redoubling on the centers. This book is an effort to that end. 

Onscreen/Offscreen is open access and available here.

Chihab El Khachab on his book, Making Film in Egypt

Interview by Meg Morley

https://aucpress.com/product/making-film-in-egypt/https://aucpress.com/product/making-film-in-egypt/

Meg Morley: How do/would you explain the central arguments of your book to the film industry personnel with whom you worked?

Chihab El Khachab: There are some arguments about which I already talked with film personnel during and after fieldwork because they were well aware of their dynamics. In particular, we talked a lot about interpersonal relations and labour hierarchies, and how both could negatively affect one’s trajectory within the industry. I’ve had this conversation with directors as well as lighting technicians, clappers, video-assist workers, and so on. I don’t recall discussing the arguments about technology or the distinction between uncertainty and imponderability. What I would tell my interlocutors, however, is that I’m not just interested in documenting the objective constraints on their work – how much money they make, how many hours they work, what kind of tasks they execute – but also in analysing how they take charge of a process as taxing and unpredictable as filmmaking despite these constraints.

What I noticed during fieldwork is that, while filmmakers were always worried about what would happen to their film next, and whether they had the right people and tools to deal with it, they ultimately managed to get through the muddle by using certain working conventions, certain hierarchies, and certain digital technologies in a way which is rarely articulated verbally. This is important because, if this core argument were to become explicit, it would highlight the extent to which the film cannot just be made by a few workers recognized in the first few credits on screen, but in a real sense, it is the outcome of collective labour to overcome everyday failures and uncertainties in the course of production.

Meg Morley: As with any ethnography, there are a number of apparent theoretical roads not taken; to me the most apparent were the neoliberal labor practices of the film industry (for example, workers are expected to always be available and sometimes own/use their own equipment) and the classism of labor hierarchies, imagined audiences, etc. Why did you decide to focus on process, technology, and future rather than other potential options?

Chihab El Khachab: On privileging process and technology, I would say two things. First, it is a matter of narrative structure: I think that the story of the book is better told as a series of anticipations which mirror, in a way, the daily anticipations of filmmakers themselves. The overarching process of the book echoes the process of filmmaking as I have experienced it. Second, the theoretical neglect of everyday technologies and everyday orientations to the future is, I think, an important reason to centre them in the book, precisely because they are so vital to the lived experience of filmmaking. Film production cannot exist without these technological uses and future-orientations, and yet, many ethnographies of film production neglect these dimensions. To put it crudely, I wasn’t interested in writing an ethnography of neoliberalism or class disguised as an ethnography of film production, but rather, I wanted to centre the actual workers that I’ve met and the experiences that I’ve had within the book’s architecture.

Now, why avoid talking about neoliberalism and class? As you rightly point out, the book has a whole subtext precisely about capitalist exploitation – in a sense, the whole analysis of the distinction between artistic and executive workers is about how value creation ultimately relies on the exploitation of manual labour to the benefit of some labelled as artists and a handful of oligopolistic producers/distributors. However, what is happening in today’s industry is not peculiar to the neoliberal period in my view, because similar precarious working arrangements existed in the early 20th-century Egyptian film industry. What I am describing today could be read through the lens of neoliberalism, of course, but this reading would occult the longer historical pattern through which precarity, value-extraction, and exploitation go hand in hand with Egyptian capitalism.

About class, I discuss the issue very briefly in chapter 2, but the basic reason I didn’t centre it is because I don’t have a good analytical language to discuss class in an everyday working context in Egypt – neither does, in my view, the anthropological literature on Egypt. The basic problem is that the existing analytical language – whether it is broadly Marxist, Weberian, Bourdieuian – is historically unattuned to emic class distinctions in Egypt. So what is called “popular” (sha‘bi) or “middle-class” (taba’a wusta) in Cairo cannot be squared easily with a Marxist distinction between people who own the means of production and people who sell their labour-power, or even a Bourdieuian distinction between people with different degrees of economic and symbolic capital. The film industry is interesting precisely because it is a cross-class space in an emic sense, where people hailing from aristocratic or upper middle-class families coexist with people from working-class or lower middle-class backgrounds. I explain in the book that these class positions correlate with – but do not directly correspond to – rank within the industry’s labour hierarchies. In limited cases, in fact, the industry can serve as a vector of social ascension in emic terms. This is a significant observation because it could lead to a more accurate accounting, in common with reflections on other sectors, of the historical process through which class mobility happens in Egypt. This is an important project to undertake beyond the bounds of the film industry proper.

Meg Morley: Can you talk a little bit more about technology and commodity-objects as reserves? In what other ways would you like to see people apply this concept?

Chihab El Khachab: There are two basic ideas I wanted to get across in the chapter on reserves. First, I wanted to say that the actual devices used by filmmakers in their daily activity go well beyond film technologies such as state-of-the-art cameras and editing suites, because smartphones, laptops, and even paper are just as widely and effectively used by filmmakers in practice. These everyday commodities are important filmmaking technologies in their own right. Second, these commodities are not just matter for consumption in the sense in which they are understood in material culture studies, but they are active elements in a production process. This is an important nuance because approaches like object biography or consumption studies tend to detail the commodity’s past and present, whereas their use in film production implies a different orientation to a somewhat expected yet unpredictable future.

The concept of reserve, as I understand it, is an attempt to explain what happens to the everyday technologies used by filmmakers when they are not just inert objects or consumption goods, but active agents in the filmmaking process. I argue that these technologies oscillate between this passive and active role at different moments in the filmmakers’ lives, which I have tried to render by the terms commodity-object and reserve. The reserve is a moment in the life of a technological device in which it is summoned to anticipate what will happen next in film production while summoning their human user to think through the future. This technological-cum-human anticipation could well apply to many socio-technical processes – architecture, art, craftsmanship, manufacture – and I would like to see scholars apply it in contexts where everyday technologies have a strong future-orientation. It’s not enough to say that people use or consume technologies in a certain way, because these technologies are often central in shaping the projects that these people have – and I believe that the idea of technology as a reserve is one step in taking this into account.

Meg Morley: Your fieldwork was on two films conceived of by the producers as art house/film festival films. How do you think your book might have been different if one or both films you worked on were of the popular “Sobky” type?

Chihab El Khachab: The surprising answer to this question is: not very much. Before doing fieldwork, I would’ve guessed – like most people who watch films without knowing how the industry works – that the production patterns in art-house cinema would be a bit different than in commercial cinema. While there are some differences, of course, especially when it comes to how the creative crew think about the film and what marketing strategy the production company uses, the core issues in which I’ve been interested – interpersonal relations, labour hierarchies, technological use, imponderability – apply just as well and look very similar in both cases. In other words, the end product might look very different, but the process itself is quite similar.

I did spend most of my time on productions which were labelled “festival films” by their companies, but I’ve also followed some productions which were much closer to the commercial mainstream. This is because the same company that was making Décor – New Century Film Production – was also making Al-Nabatshi, Qot w-Far (Cat and Mouse), and Qodrat Gheir ‘Adeyya (Out of the Ordinary). I attended some preparations and shooting in all these films, but I didn’t write about them to avoid interrupting the book’s narrative flow. The production crew with which I worked in Décor had a long history of working with Good News, a mega-budget company from the 2000s, and all the technicians in Décor also worked on commercial films to make a living. The main difference, really, was the marketing team and the creative crew – the director, the cinematographer, the art director – who would want the film to look and be branded in a certain way. Everyone else, it seems to me, worked according to very similar patterns, which is a significant observation on its own.

Meg Morley: As someone doing research on Egyptian cultural production (in my case, raqs sharqi/belly dance), I can imagine how you moved from studying the process of filmmaking in Egypt to doing a historical ethnography of the Ministry of Culture. But for those less familiar with the arts and entertainment in Egypt, can you explain how your book project led to your current project?

Chihab El Khachab: I would say that there are two main connections. The first connection is very practical: many of the filmmakers with whom I worked have one link or another with the Ministry of Culture. Many went to the High Cinema Institute (which is part of the Academy of Arts at the Ministry of Culture), some received funding from the National Film Institute, some would go watch the regular screenings at the Opera House (where the Cairo International Film Festival is usually held). In addition to the writers and artists connected with the Ministry of Culture that I knew already, I made a sizeable network within and around the Ministry through fieldwork.

The second connection is a historical one. While the film industry was only regulated by a censorship bureau at the Ministry of Interior until 1952, President Nasser was keen on promoting the film industry as an organ of national development after independence. From 1957 onwards, especially, there were several national bodies and institutions dedicated to promoting film production, distribution, and exhibition. These bodies became nearly omnipotent after extensive nationalization policies in the 1960s, but they lost much of their power once the industry was re-privatised in the 1970s. Yet, these institutions continue to play a vital role in today’s industry – including the High Cinema Institute and the National Film Institute – which means that it is important to understand the intersections of filmmaking with the cultural state apparatus and its historical development in order to understand Egyptian film production. This is why there is a kindred spirit between my first and second projects.

Meg Morley: How did you decide on AUC Press for your book?

Chihab El Khachab: This was serendipitous in a way. Prior to finishing the manuscript, I had sent my book proposal to many university presses and, ultimately, committed the manuscript with a US-based publisher. While the book was under review, Anne Routon (who had just become the new acquisitions editor at AUC press in New York) contacted me about publishing the book and told me about AUC’s ambition to expand its research monographs list – which they since did. I told her that I was already committed to another press, but when things didn’t work out there, I decided to move back to AUC press because (a) I knew that the editor was genuinely interested in my book’s topic (which, in hindsight, seemed to have been an issue with the first publisher) and (b) the AUC press has been, with few exceptions, the major English-language publisher on anything Egyptian cinema. My book found a natural home in this list, and I’ve been very happy with the whole publishing experience at AUC press.

Mazyar Lotfalian on his new book, What People Do with Images

Interview by Michael Fischer

https://www.seankingston.co.uk/publishing.html

Michael Fischer: It is so great to see your book finally coming out in print: we’ve been talking about it in seminars and conferences for so long, we now have a chance to look back and appreciate what it accomplishes. First of all, how would you like to see it positioned vis-a-vis three different literatures: the literature on the anthropology of art, the literature on Middle Eastern art, and the literature on Iranian art? How would you characterize the state of these literatures and how does your book move their debates forward? In particular you make an interesting argument against the legacy Orientalism that lingers in museums and among curators.  

Mazyar Lotfalian: The anthropology of art in the 1990s impacted Middle Eastern art, an older field belonging to art history and architectural history. Critical studies in architecture, semiotics studies, and ethnographic studies ushered the study of Middle Eastern art into making visual and aural fields as central as other fields of studies. This change has been gradual. 

Literature on Iranian art has had a similar trajectory. I think the international fame of Iranian cinema had the most impact on visual studies. It became more accessible for the academic visual studies departments to imagine Iranian films as a legitimate material culture to understand Muslim culture. By now, a few academic hires claim Iranian cinema as their field. 

Ethnography as a method of understanding visual culture has been lagging behind critical studies. My effort is threefold. To develop what it means to do ethnographic studies of visual culture. To situate visual anthropology within a media ecology that avoids studying art in isolation. And to theorize and understand to role of technology in the production and circulation of art. 

Orientalism, or the contemporary version, neo-Orientalism in visual representation, has continued, especially after 911. I present a framework that goes beyond Orientalism and situates the work of art on a performative ground. Two additional concepts I use, after Rancière, are dissensus and heterology. They help us understand the work of art not in terms of what they try to oppose and replace but how they try to neutralize, say, the Orientalist effect. The focus of the study would be the heterogeneity of forms and performativity of acts. 

Michael Fischer: You are one of the few anthropologists to have been able to go to Iran every year from 2001 to 2019. One of the features of the book is that it bridges Iran and Iranians in the diaspora rather than grounding itself in either one or the other. It also bridges the worlds of performance art, museums, galleries, biennales or major art shows, and new media. Usually commentaries situate the art either in Iran or in the international arena, but you seem to refuse that dichotomy, so how do you see the field of action that you are addressing?  

Mazyar Lotfalain:  Yes, I think this is precisely the contribution that the book is trying to make, a broader understanding of ecologies of mediation rather than focusing narrowly on technological devices. The production of work of art is distributed across spatial and political boundaries. Iranian art projects that are conceived and produced in New York and Tehran are both similar and different. The nuances and essential details come to light by ethnographic engagements. 

There is excellent work emerging under the category of the Iranian diaspora. However, there is a sense that Iranian diaspora means spatially things that happen outside Iran. This perception has been reinforced by increased difficulty in traveling to Iran. 

 My yearly trip to Iran had a cumulative effect ethnographically speaking. I was able to rethink my writing frame many times, which defined my book sections; the book is event-driven, sort of a bottom-up approach. During the time of political polarization, we need to use ethnography creatively.

Michael Fischer: You draw on several key theorists to help orient readers, but you seem to push the arguments they make beyond where they left them. Can you say more about what in your field of attention stimulated you to go beyond where they had left things. As I read the book, you draw particularly on W.T.C. Mitchell, Jacques Rancière, and Henry Jenkins, all of whom seem to be operating very much within a European or Euro-American frame. How does the cross-continental Iranian focus challenge them or maybe extend their lines of thought? I’m particularly interested in your notions of circulation and secondary appropriation across art forms as a kind of transformative politics, analogous to the way, perhaps, that the velocity of money and capital changes their force or social role.  

Mazyar Lotfalain:  I have used several western theorists, as you mention, who have tried to explain visual cultures through theories of images, aesthetics, politics, and the role of technology. I was interested in W.T.C. Mitchell’s concept of images as not just representational but things that come to life by human interaction. Rancière helped me understand the role of politics in visual culture as both police and dissensus. Jenkins shows the role of new media technology as a convergent modality where one work becomes the base for another; this illustrates digital technology well. I would caution, after Rancière, that the convergent modality remains within the politics of policing versus dissensus. 

The process is certainly not the application of one theorist to my existing data. Still, to work with ethnographic material and borrow what works best to understand them is the work of translation. In addition, cultural interpretation in this work is tuned to the hermeneutics of Iranian culture, not within its national boundary but in a vast spatial-temporal-political that exists. 

The expansion of Iranian art sales in Dubai, Beirut, Berlin, New York, and the Tehran art market caused the supply of Iranian art to increase by the mid-2000s. The increase in the velocity of exchange in art (just like money) means that art is exchanged into more hands. Iranian art is circulating at a rapid rate. I want to get to what you are asking, the value of political interest, which is not separate from the money interest. Iranian art entered the world of politics in the West and Iran. Many museum venues, art galleries, and media events invested in Iranian art as “the better side of Iranians” to appropriate art as an expression of resistance. There are layers of values that are attached to this political interest. What I talk about in the book as a poetic space is where the real transformative power lies. If the artists and others who create critical works join forces, their works can take advantage of this opportunity and bring about potential political changes. 

Michael Fischer: Rancière’s notion of politics as dissensus as opposed to policing seems to be quite productive in your work. You argue that the underground in Iran is not to be understood as analogous to samizdat in Russia, and indeed that it is not so much oppositional as neutralizing easy oppositions, and instead moves the field of what is possible to say or do beyond the ambiguities of the security state. Can you give an example or two?  

Mazyar Lotfalain:  In the book, I talk about the work of Neshat, whose work well exemplifies the production of dissensus. Her initial work mainly focused on women, veils, and calligraphy, all possible signifiers of the Orientalist discourse. In these early works, she tried to subvert them. The veil didn’t turn into a sign of weakness, and the calligraphy represented feminist poetry. Circulation of these images, one might argue, has one value, that of Orientalist discourse. The circulation generated diverse debate among Iranians, in both diaspora and Iran, about their potential as a critical discourse, including Orientalist intent. The formation of dissensus among the Iranian artists has been productive. What Rancière calls heterology in political art replaces the Orientalist lens. Heterology refers to the distribution of the sensible meaning of art as a performative network that makes the political art fulfills its potential instead of the message of any element. 

Michael Fischer: Say something about how the cafe-and-gallery spaces in Tehran have evolved over the past twenty years, as Iran first liberalized under Khatami, and even under Ahmadinejad, and how conservative politics is now affecting things. And say something about how these spaces are in tension with the art-markets that promote commodification.

Mazyar Lotfalain:  The so-called liberalization of the public space started with Khatami, although the architect was Rafsanjani towards the end of the Iran/Iraq war. Cafe houses sprang up first in Tehran and then spread to other cities in the 2000s. They were a marker of the wealth of the middle class at the time and the opening of the political space. A number of the cafe houses were combined cafe galleries, which oriented the young population towards art, broadly understood. Interestingly, the families of renowned literary authors owned several cafe galleries. These changes in public spaces continued during the Ahmadinejad administration as well, although there was more restriction. The art market, cafe houses, galleries, and the government sanction through censorship shaped the aesthetic sensibilities – this has been the dialectic of aesthetic and culture-making (farhang-sazi). 

The opening of cafes and galleries has continued today. Two factors affected their livelihood. First, the sanctions on Iran and the drop in oil prices impacted the number of Iranians who frequented them. Secondly, the pandemic caused many of them to close down. For instance, cafe 78, a pioneering cafe gallery, closed down in 2021. Since its inception, in 2003, this place has become an educational and aesthetic space for young Tehranis. With the inauguration of a unified conservative government, we are yet to see the outcome of this sea change for the art world in Iran. 

Michael Fischer: Can you also describe the changing populations of arts students over the last two decades, and maybe the ways in which their training is changing.  

Mazyar Lotfalain:  As I mentioned, the liberalization of the late 1990s accompanied a widening of the middle class. The consumption among the middle class increased. As I discuss in the book, art education outside universities, which existed before, was even more sought for social activity. There was a gender component in it as well. It became more acceptable for the families to have their male children to pursue art education. Families began to see art as a potentially viable career direction. There was a clear connection to the art market. Art students learn from the maters outside the universities. In a way, art education has happened outside universities which the government controls. Social space for art education is different than, say, engineering in this way. 

Michael Fischer: Do you want to draw attention to particular art projects that illustrate most sharply the arguments in your book. I’m thinking of maybe Sohrab Kashani and Azadeh Akhlaghi as key examples among those we have not yet mentioned.  

Mazyar Lotfalain:  he two projects, one by Sohrab Kashani and the other by Azadeh Akhlaghi, are significant for a few reasons. These projects, at the outset, are made transnational that connects Iran and its diaspora. Kashani’s project works on the practice and politics of communication through technology. Akhlaghi’s project activates the past through staged images of a contested history of Iran and its diaspora.

Kashani in Super Sohrab incarnated in himself with Superman-like attire. Super Sohrab goes to many places (especially in Europe) and tries to establish person-to-person communication between himself and through their networks by his standards, to establish a people-to-people conversation. He has also collaborated with an art professor, Jon Rubin of Carnegie Melon University, on three projects similar to Super SohrabKubideh KitchenPortals, and The Foreigner. All of these involve Iranians and Americans using technology or food to experience cultural tastes from each other, precisely the exchanges that governments have prevented. These are great examples of how aesthetics and politics combine. 

Akhlaghi, through staged photography, provokes the truth about the events of the past. Historical images that have been taken out of circulation, often hidden or disappeared, reappear, staged, and real for people. They lose their ambiguity or anonymity, and people may recognize them as real voices or as having a sense of reality. One of her staged images is that of the champion wrestler, Takhati. It has reportedly been used in an annual memorial of his death in place of, or as, a real photograph of him. Akhlaghi’s staged photos have even been used in the media without reference to the artist, presented as real. There is a sly game or dance between artistic ambiguity and the discursive hegemonies re-curated by the media or by Takhati’s supporters.  

I refer to this emergent change in the ‘distribution of the sensible’ throughout the book, after Jacques Rancière’s work on aesthetics and politics. Rancière connects aesthetics to politics, where people’s political participation relies on their perceptions and senses of visibility/invisibility, inclusion/exclusion. These modes are regulated by the distribution of the sensible, a regime that makes what is visible and invisible possible. Rancière distinguishes between police and politics: police maintain the distribution of social classes while politics challenges that status quo. Politics is a way for the excluded to disturb established power. The two phenomenological changes (Islam and digital technology) are challenging the established regime of the sensible. What Iranian artists show us in transnational space and the realm of aesthetics and politics is emblematic of this sea change. 

I think that not only Iranian artists but generally artists from the Muslim cultures have been producing works when politics of representation challenge the regime of visibility/invisibility. In this context, the tension between police and politics generates a fertile ground for political art. 

Michael Fischer: Finally, do you want to say something about the writing strategy that the book adopts. I find the way you use your own first-person experiences not only to guide the reader in the ethnographic examples, but also to explain the theoretical concepts, to be extremely inviting especially for use in the classroom.  

Mazyar Lotfalain: I wanted to give a phenomenological sense of the events through my experiences. The book did not have an outline at the outset. The events that I engaged with, ethnographically, from 2003 to 2015 became chapters. There is a temporal limitation to writing about a phenomenon that is taking shape right before your eyes. The book is not about everything. But there is a depth that this writing strategy affords. 

You mention the possibility of using the book as a teaching tool. Each chapter provides critical tools to discuss an event. For instance, the chapter on digital activism will give an in-depth understanding of “convergent mode of production,” however, the internet tools have evolved ever since 2009 that I wrote that chapter. Readers need to apply the conceptual frame to today’s events. I found this writing style interesting in that it acknowledges the temporal structure and yet gives a fuller picture of the event at that historical moment. This way of anchoring leaves opens the possibility of going back and generating new interpretations. 

Sarah Mitchell takes the page 99 test

For the sake of full disclosure, I’m going to start my reflection on my Page 99 with a quick nod to the blog’s editor. When Dr. Gershon started the Page 99 series on the CaMP blog, I was acting as the blog administrator. We had chatted about the concept and structure of the series and at some point, she expressed a concern that people would start ‘gaming’ the series so that they purposely made the 99th page an exceptionally good page from their dissertation, to make it more coherent or smart-sounding. Of all people, I’m probably most susceptible to this temptation. Well, I just want to assure her and the readers of the blog that while I am particularly pleased with what my 99th page wound up being, I did not do this on purpose. I must give credit to my committee that requested further theoretical discussion at the beginning of the document after reading the first draft and thus pushed this page into its current position. If that hadn’t happened, you’d likely have read something about TIFF’s scandalous history…who wants that? Instead, my Page 99 comes from my third chapter in a section I labelled, Glamorous Work: A Geertzian Turn.

After laying out the scope of the dissertation in the introductory chapter and elaborating the key concepts in the second, this third chapter is where I place those concepts in context. I focus on a particular night in 2014 when my husband and I were conducting an interview with film director Kevin Smith and we get into trouble with the red carpet coordinator. I use this particular incident to illustrate the central social relationship of the film festival that exists between filmmakers, film audiences and the film festival organizers who act as special intermediaries between the first two groups. In this final section of the chapter, I reveal that I am purposely echoing the structure of Geertz’s “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” because I viewed this social relationship as akin to the one described in Geertz’s essay (1977). As I describe a few pages earlier, Geertz argues that the cockfight is play because the risks involved are ‘really real’ for the birds and only symbolically real for the bettors. But I see the inverse on the red carpet. The really real risk does not lie with the single film or even single film screening but with the filmmakers, film audiences, and subsequently, their intermediary, the film festival organizers. This page outlines this risk. As the page concludes, in terms of economic and status risk, I argue the highest risk lies with the organizers, the few that connect the many at the festival. And, in this sense, what they engage in is not ‘deep symbolism told in meaningless play, but material work performed in glamorous iconography’. As I end the chapter a few pages later, I set up the subsequent chapters where I dive further into the intricacies of this work in this context. But before moving forward, I suggest that this glamorous work is perhaps not unique to the film festival setting but extends upward through the ‘prismatic distortions’ of global mediascapes (Appadurai 1990).

It is admittedly an ambitious chapter and this page highlights some of its grand assertions. But while the attempts to connect my own theory to cultural anthropology luminaries is perhaps too aspirational for a dissertation, as someone who has spent years in media pens elbowing my way into position for a clear shot of the celebrity du jour, the distance between red carpets and cockfights is not as far as one might assume.

Sarah Mitchell. 2017. Glamorous Work: An Ethnographic Study of the Toronto International Film Festival. Indiana University, Phd.

 

Sylvia Martin on her new book, Haunted

https://global.oup.com/academic/product/haunted-9780190464462

Interview by Maria Nikolaeva Lechtarova

The integration of ethnographic detail, media theory, and analysis throughout your book creates a fluid space for critical thought, as well as enchantment with the subject matter. Writing multi-sited ethnography is a notoriously difficult task. How did you first decide that having a comparative framework was necessary for your analysis? What structuring insights guided your writing process? 

Thank you. Yes, transnational multi-sited ethnography is very challenging. Due to time and funding constraints, you can’t always spend equal amounts of time in each place (and even if you do, there’s no guarantee that you’ll come away with commensurate observations). Yet multi-sited ethnography is also rewarding, as you acquire various perspectives.

More than a comparative study, I consider this ethnography a connective study. Comparison is built into multi-sited ethnography, as George Marcus has said. Yet there are some fundamental similarities between many entertainment industries around the world, especially commercially-driven ones. So, I intended to “follow the activity” into differently located sites with their own particular histories and contexts, to discover specificities as well as commonalities and links between the industries.

Both the Hollywood and Hong Kong media industries operate at multiple scales, simultaneously, and I tried to capture that. They may present as fairly self-contained and separable from one another. Certainly in the day-to-day production process, people are often deeply immersed within their immediate environments. However, the entirety of the production activities of these two industries is not always contained within the city in which their industry is based. Sometimes filming has to occur on location, across state, national, or regional borders. Or, a production may bring in talent or money from other parts of the world. And in fact, Hollywood and Hong Kong have been directly connected to each for about a century through particular individuals, ideas, and financial investments.

The Hollywood and Hong Kong industries also share a long history of being highly commercial, and both have had to increasingly contend with China’s growing film industry – more directly than most other national film industries. Both are seeing more and more of their projects and their workers physically cross borders for economic reasons. And both have tended to be male-dominated at the studio executive level and on set.

Therefore, despite their differences, Hollywood and Hong Kong share many concerns and issues. This is why I didn’t organize the book into separate geographies; there is no pure “Hong Kong Section” or “Hollywood Section”: neither place exists in isolation. In trying to convey film and television production as a diffused, transnational practice, we move back and forth across specific sites within chapters, which combine findings from both places.

By using the concept of media assemblage as an organizational device in the writing as well as an analytical approach to understand the empirical evidence, I was able to preserve the open-endedness that I often saw. (This open-endedness includes some of the overlap between film and television production in both places, too.)

So, I refer to this book as a connective study because I explore material and thematic links between the two industrial centers, alongside the contrasts. Now, there are a couple chapters that deal primarily with one site, but even those still refer to the other site. For instance, in the chapter devoted mostly to Hollywood, I included observations of Hong Kong filmmakers working at a Los Angeles studio, partly as a way to show how in its own backyard (or, backlot), Hollywood is more transnational in its production activities than even it realizes sometimes – and reliant on Asian labor. In our contemporary globalized world, we often operate in industries or institutions that may appear very geographically contained yet are actually quite porous. As a result, place-based worker identities in the States and Hong Kong have been caught up in issues of nativism and racism in the former and localism in the latter.

Of course, there are some very significant differences between the Los Angeles-based industry and the Hong Kong-based industry, especially in regards to geopolitical and economic power, which I discuss. This is why multi-sited ethnography – from research to writing – means grappling with the tension between compartmentalization and connection. It entails shifting perspectives, or multi-sightedness. I found that people in both industries had their own reasons for emphasizing both the uniqueness of their industry and its unity with other national media industries. Figuring out the contours of this relationality has been exciting

I found your concept of “media assemblages” to be a portable tool for comparing very different media worlds. Ethnography stands as the anthropologist’s media of choice to disentangle and explicate the assemblages in field research by constructively distancing them from the spectacles of the anthropologist’s fascinations. However, if you were going to make a documentary film of this book, how would you envision it? Who would be your intended audience, and how would it compare to the audience of this book? 

Making this book into a documentary is a great idea! I’d focus on my finding about the intersection of religion and media production. Some people are surprised to hear that Hollywood studios skip “unlucky” 13 in their numbered sound stages, one studio having even kept a psychic on its payroll (confirming industry hype about “the magic of moviemaking”!). And folks in Hollywood are intrigued to hear about incense burning on Hong Kong film sets to ensure an auspicious shoot, as well as astrological forecasting. Meanwhile, they themselves may collect St. Clare of Assisi icons (she’s the patron saint of television) to help them through the various challenges of filming – the social and emotional risks as well as physical and financial ones. For instance, when filming a death scene in either industry, concerns about mortality can trouble the cast and crew, immersed as they are in these stylized settings.

Why this particular focus? The assumption that there is an absence of religion in the culture of industrial production remains quite strong among people I talk to in both the U.S. and East Asia (especially the United States). The assumption is fueled by economic rationalization and the Enlightenment narrative of a steady march towards scientific reason. Sometimes people see its presence, but they don’t think about its implications.

Anthropologists know that modernity doesn’t mean the loss of mysticism. And people who study performance or religion know that there is a long history of the two being intertwined. But a public anthropology film that shows actors reading Scripture on set or producers budgeting for the hoih geng lai (“opening lens”) ceremony would help general audiences see that “modern” and technologically sophisticated workplaces are not free of religion and spiritual expressions, especially in industries that hinge on so much uncertainty and insecurity. Anthropologists have a lot to offer in helping people to question received categories. Despite the presumed secularity of commercial media environments, actually, expressions of religion and the supernatural are enfolded, sometimes expected, in the very spaces and practices of these businesses. They can even guide work decisions, such as when and where to film.

Hopefully such a film would generate more conversations about the precarious conditions of media labor, and the experience of contemporary work in general. It would make evident to people that we do indeed draw from a variety of cultural elements to make our labor more meaningful, to legitimize decisions, and to protect ourselves as we work, even (especially) in bureaucratic or mechanized settings. The question could then be raised: what other professional workspaces and activities commonly considered secular are actually influenced by, or inclusive of, expressions of formal or informal religion as well as the supernatural? Trading floors? Science labs? Our understanding of managerial accountability and decision-making may then take on another dimension.

This becomes particularly relevant as we consider the implications of automated labor and robot replacements, especially in an industry that increasingly relies upon computer-generated images and digital doubles to enhance or replace the human form. We should think deeply about what it is that human beings bring to the workplace. In addition to the particular skills or talents we offer, people harbor foibles and fears, inspirations and intuitions; these are not mutually exclusive. Our memories of past experiences and anticipations of future events shape our productive capabilities. Our cosmologies – the way we think about the universe whether we’re atheists or adherents – also play a role in formulating our outlook and our decision-making in the workplace (explicitly stated or not). Although corporations and labor management often discourage you from bringing the totality of who you are to work, and some people become quite successful at partitioning themselves (with recent advances in robotics likely to intensify the pressure to do so), not everyone can accomplish this, nor, perhaps, should we always strive to.

In your chapter on “Affective Labor” you illuminate the critical emotive aspects of film production that often take backstage to the “effects” of film reception. How does industry folklore of criminal involvement and encounters with death during the production process circulate publicly?

The industry folklore of those things has frequently circulated through broadcast and print media and rumors in both places. There is a history of organized crime in both industries, especially in Hollywood in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Gangsters such as Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky remain part of the American popular culture landscape, inspiring books and movies. Years ago the Hong Kong actor, director, and producer Philip Chan, who actually used to be a police superintendent prior to joining the film and TV industry, spoke to Hong Kong and British media about triads in the Hong Kong entertainment world. But you don’t hear too much in the news today about organized crime in the Hollywood or Hong Kong film/TV industries.

It’s also worth mentioning that literally a century ago Hollywood became a magnet for drug dealing and use. News reports and rumors of drug use (some legal, some not) among silent film stars contributed to Hollywood’s early reputation as an immoral environment. Over the years, complicated issues of accountability and ethics arose for actors in particular, a few of whom have in interviews and memoirs referred to being “offered” certain substances by production members or management to help their job performance, whether it be for energy, recovery, weight loss, and so on, somewhat similar to athletes and U.S. combat pilots. Manipulating the corporeal and emotional potentials of its workers – even creating a distracted worker – became a tactic of those who manage affective laborers.

Other kinds of illegal activities are regularly reported in the media, such as managers embezzling money from actors. Especially in Hollywood, there’s a lot of contract litigation that gets covered by the trade publications and entertainment media. Other forms of potentially illegal activity, such as discrimination and sexual harassment or abuse on film/TV sets, may publicly surface through reportage of law suits, interviews, and now blogs, social media, and leaks, more so in the U.S. than Hong Kong. The amount of unpaid labor in Hollywood via internships has also come under recent legal and media scrutiny.

As for fatalities, news of accidents on set in Hong Kong circulates in print media. The drowning death of a cameraman on a Jackie Chan film a few years ago in Hong Kong (which was a US/China/HK co-production) was reported around the world because of the big names involved on the film. Accidents during filming on Hollywood projects typically appear in Hollywood trade publications as well as American mainstream media. Regarding the very recent death of stuntman Jon Bernecker on the set of the American TV show The Walking Dead, I was glad to see that the L.A. Times included quotes from OSHA about the lack of workplace protections in its coverage. This kind of context and scrutiny by journalists in both places is needed, especially for productions that film on location, where safety is not always so rigorously followed and rushed schedules can lead to very dangerous mistakes.

You weave together a complex, composite image of the Hong Kong and Hollywood film industries by analyzing their overlapping cinematic and occult histories, as well as their common mode of expression – the camera. I enjoyed peeking through the aperture of your ethnography to consider the space of film production as having its own supernatural gaze – one that shouldn’t be met head on, like that of an onstage actor. What were media workers’ relationships to image-capturing technologies in their lives offset, and how did they differ from their professional roles as mediators between worlds? 

When they’re working, they don’t have a lot of time off-set, in Hollywood or in Hong Kong. Between projects, the relationship to those technologies operated for many of them on a continuum. Film and TV are visual mediums. In both sites, it is in many media workers’ best professional interests to be familiar with how their work looks on-camera (depending on their job: their set design, their direction, their lighting, their angles, their bodies, and so on), as well as the latest developments in camera technologies. Many technical personnel in particular devoted some time off the set to these technologies, so it’s a pretty consistent relationship.

Lots of media workers, even extras, wardrobe assistants, and set designers, often described locations or scenery they observed in their downtime with an eye to how they might look on camera. With smart phones, now “everyone” is a photographer or filmmaker and nothing is too esoteric to be captured and curated. Yet industry members striving to remain employed and competitive have for many, many decades been professionally primed to evaluate all the world as a potential film location, to assess any and all surroundings as a possible backdrop. Offset, they are still mediating between worlds: their private and professional ones.

 

 

El Khachab’s Technology, Labor, and Mediation in the Egyptian Film Industry

My thesis is not about the link between cinema and car mechanics in Egypt, but this is what I discuss on page 99. There is still a sense in which this link touches on a core intellectual contribution that I hoped to make. The thesis examines how workers in the Egyptian film industry cope with the unforeseeable future of film production. I argue that this future is not entirely unforeseeable, as it is made to seem by interlocutors and scholars alike, but that it is managed through a hierarchical division of labor, an attention to the socio-technical process of film production, and a constant use of technological devices. In other words, when filmmakers confront such an unforeseeable problem as imagining “the film” while writing it, their responses never come out of nothing: they rely on existing hierarchies, techniques, and technologies to manage the issue.

This has little to do with car mechanics, or so it seems. Cinema carries strong expectations regarding what there is to study about it, and one imagines a cinema anthropologist to hang out with stars and directors to study their works, worldviews, and creative impulses. What I have done instead is to document the contributions of “unknown soldiers” in the film industry: set builders and production assistants, cameramen and sound engineers, grips and gaffers; workers who have more in common with craftsmen than the creative types we imagine peopling the industry. The vital insight is that each worker has a different stake in the film’s future: what it means to imagine the film is very different to a director as opposed to a gripping technician. By giving equal consideration to the director’s and the technician’s projects, however, I have tried to complicate expectations about what there is to study in “cinema”.

What remains to be studied is the historical link between cinema and other industrial crafts, for example, car repairs. The history of Egyptian cinema – and arguably, the history of cinema tout court – is predominantly written as though cinema was a series of “artworks”, without recognizing how cinema workers exist in a wider socio-technical world. It would be astonishing if the strong similarities between Egyptian craftsmen in the film industry and in the car repairs industry were a mere historical accident. Yet this comparison is seldom raised, because both activities are seldom put in the same sentence together. The comparison matters nevertheless because it breaks the stereotypical bounds between “creative” and “technical” activities, and it lets us think about what Egyptian cinema can say about Egyptian society more broadly.

Chihab El Khachab. “Technology, Labor, and Mediation in the Egyptian Film Industry.” DPhil dissertation, University of Oxford, 2017.

Chihab El Khachab is a Junior Research Fellow in Anthropology at Christ Church, University of Oxford. His doctoral research examined the everyday production practices of Egyptian cinema. He is currently working on a history of the Egyptian Ministry of Culture. He can be reached by email at chihab.elkhachab@chch.ox.ac.uk.

Anthropological Methodology is the Biggest Star at the Oscars this Year

By Sarah Mitchell For the past few years, my husband and I have tried to see all the films nominated for the best picture Academy Award category as well as some of the other films nominated in the various categories … Continue reading