Chihab El Khachab on his book, Making Film in Egypt

Interview by Meg Morley

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

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

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

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