Friday, September 05, 2008

Michael Benton: City of God, Schindler's List and Contextual Viewings

We watched this film in ENG 282: International Film Studies this week.

This is the tenth time that I have seen Cidade de Deus (City of God) Directed by Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund. Brazil: 2002, 130 minutes.

The first time I watched it was like a rollercoaster ride in which the story washed over me and left me somewhat breathless. It was a personal viewing and my critical lense was not fully engaged. Later viewings were different, where before I watched it in the privacy of my home, the later viewings were in communal settings with a larger screen. Although it is often claimed that the theater encourages the "voyeur's gaze" (Norman K. Denzin), I find that watching a movie at home is much more voyeuristic in that one can simply watch without thoughts of others impeding on your experience, on the other hand, a public theater involves one in a communal experience in which you interact with the narrative on the screen while experiencing the reactions of your fellow filmgoers. You may think why is someone laughing at this point, or watch as someone flees the theater, or wonder if anyone can see the tears streaming down your face as you recognize some hidden part of yourself in a cinematic moment. While the darkened theater does allow the viewer to easily slip into a dream-like state, it is a much more "restless" communal state than watching a dvd in the privacy of one's home.

This time I watched City of God with the knowledge of where the story would end and it forced me to deal more directly with my responses to the violent spectacle of the narrative. This is one of the reasons I value rewatching films in different contexts because it forces different perspectives (at least in me, I also feel very fortunate to be a teacher of film in that new generations of film students confront me with their experiences and responses, causing, nay forcing me, to revisit my own intepretations in light of their own responses and comments).

One example of a film changing through different contextual viewings is the case of the grand cinematic spectacle of Schindler's List (1993). The first time I watched it was in its second week of release in a crowded megaplex theater in Belleville, IL. The theater was overcrowded, people were sitting in the aisles, and the stench of movie popcorn was overwhelming. It sickened me to watch this portrayal of the Holocaust with people munching on buckets of popcorn and slurping at their quarts of soda. Even though I was revolted by the spectacle of the gorging while starving people were being represented on the screen, there was a moving point when I noticed an elderly couple sobbing and I wondered who they knew that had tragically been lost in the Holocaust. I left the theater disgusted, at humanity, at the gross displays of consumerism, and at myself for not knowing how to make things better.

The second time I watched Schindler's List it was during the special showing of the film on television free of commercial interruption (February 26, 1997). The network that was showing it, with funding from the Ford company (if memory serves me correctly), declared that this was a cultural artifact that demanded to be shown uninterrupted and that it should not be sullied with the dirtiness of commercial concerns (OK, those are my words, but that was the sentiment of the time, but this should also cause us to pause and think about commercials and commercial TV in general). I was a master's student in the Popular Culture Department at Bowling Green State University (Ohio). A wonderful, nurturing, small environment of scholars seeking to glimpse outside the fishbowl. We gathered at a professor's house to watch the event and analyze the film as well as the cultural moment. Again, food was abundant, but it was the food that is cooked with one's own hands, thoughtfully prepared, and shared communally. Somehow this did not disturb me in the way that the popcorn/candy/soda of the movie theater did. We sat in a circle aound the TV, lights on, and discussed all aspects of the film, the historical period and the significance of a large percentage of Americans tuning in that night to watch the film. The experience provided distance from the cinematic experience, yet at the same time enhanced my engagement with the film. It forced me to think about the (re)presentation of the historical facts, to compare the film with other films/histories presented by the audience and to revisit my first distasteful communal experience of the film. Another aspect of the discussion was the protest of fundamentalist Christian groups who believed the film shouldn't be shown unedited on TV and conservative Oklahoma congressman Tom Coburn's statement that the airing of the film was an affront to "decent-minded individuals everywhere."

The third time I watched Schindler's List was during another equally powerful historical moment that exposed some of the worst aspects of human cruelty. It was the following academic year after the commercial-free broadcast and I was teaching Introduction to Popular Culture/Mass Media courses for Bowling Green State University. During the early part of the semester a student group did a presentation on the film Schindler's List and claimed that it was unique document because it provided insight to a unique event in human history and that it let us understand this isolated example of evil. The Holocaust because of its increasing historical example as the ultimate "evil" of humanity had become, for many people, an isolated example that they could point to as a place humanity was once at, but never would return to again. I attemted to get my students to understand that this was not an isolated event and that there were many examples of similar collective acts of violent genocide throughout history and the present time. I was struggling to somehow break through their assumption that it could never happen again because we "know" better. I fell into a state of bewildered despair for the next couple of weeks as I struggled with how I could bring a new perspective to their understanding of Schindler's List and the Holocaust--to provide a context that would combat the sense of it being an isolated, special circumstance, caused by depraved monsters, rather than the self-interested actions of everyday humans. Then, as sometimes happens, events provided another opportunity for revisiting the film.

During the middle of the semester Dr. Lisa Wolford, a performance scholar, hosted an interactive performance piece "El Mexterminator", featuring Guillermo Gomez-Peña and Roberto Sifuentes, as part of an ongoing series on campus. I heard that the performance was going to address stereotyped and racist representations of Chicano/as and Latino/as. Sensing that this would provide a good opportunity to introduce my students to a different cultural sensibility and to open up the spatial environment of the sealed classroom I decided to bring my entire class to the performance.

This performance opened up a new world for me and the students. It forced us to examine our American history from the eyes/perspective of (an)other culture and irrevocably altered my understanding of education. A week later after this powerful performative event, the South African Truth and Reconciliation committee was holding public hearings and parts of their video broadcasts of amnesty confessions were aired on 60 Minutes. The Post-Apartheid government of South Africa had decided that a full public exposure of the crimes carried out under the Apartheid government would ensure that the world would never forget what had happened. 60 Minutes broadcast an episode that featured men discussing in detail the everyday tasks of disposing and hiding bodies, including the difficulties of completely incinerating a human body. My class watched these historical broadcasts and developed a new understanding of the problems of isolating the Holocaust, or any collective violence, as a unique event, that has never happened before, or will never happen again. My class asked if we could watch Schindler's List and I agreed with the understanding that we would all research the broader historical background of the event. The experience of watching students watch this film, actively taking notes, and later debating the history of the Holocaust, with a deeper awareness of its development and its future ramifications, was an amazing experience. It completely transformed my understanding of the film and the potential for teaching about the politics/aesthetics of the film.

So, why do I bring all of this up after watching City of God? Because in talking with colleagues/students that have seen this film it often seems that the rollercoaster ride of the quick editing and the violent spectacle of the fast-paced narrative keeps us from engaging with the reality of the people who live in dangerous environments like this, in Brazil, in other countries, and definitely in our own country. I think this is a good film, but something keeps nagging at me, perhaps there is more to the story, why the focus only on criminals, why are women just backdrops for the actions of violent men, is there more to the story--why does the main character Rocket seem so lifeless and undeveloped (it was his story? yet it became the tale of Little Ze)?

On the DVD edition of City of God there is an amazing documentary by Katia Lund (co-director with Fernando Meirelles of City of God) called News From a Personal War that examines the lives of the poor people who live in the favelas, including the working class striving to better themselves, and the police/politicians who view the place as a dumping ground for society's undesirables. Everyone interviewed in the documentary from the street level gangsters, to the workers, to militia-style policeman, to the wealthy politicians, are brutally honest about their motivations/intent in a way that we rarely see discussed in the U.S. For example this quote from a high-ranking police officer:

Hélio Luz: I'll say it myself. The police are corrupt. The institution was designed to be violent and corrupt. And the people think that's odd. Why do I say it was designed this way? Because it was created to protect the State and the elite. I practice law enforcement to protect and serve the status quo; no beating around the bush. It keeps the favela under control. How do you keep two million people under control; people who make R$112 a month, when they make any? How do you keep the underprivileged under control and calm?

interviewer: With repression?

Hélio Luz: Of course! How else would it be?

In the last week I have talked to four people who own a copy of the DVD in their home, yet they have never seen the documentary... perhaps this is what I should have shown last night? Once again, City of God is an amazing film, but this cannot stop us from asking questions about lessons-learned and lessons-hidden in the films we watch, most importantly we should question the films we enjoy the most and challenge ourselves to ask hard questions.

by Michael Benton

Ryan Mottesheard: Fernando Meirelles' visceral Brazilian crime epic, City of God

City of Gods: An Interview with Fernando Meirelles

Joanne Laurier: Sincere, but avoiding difficult questions

Cinema of Brazil

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