Friday, May 24, 2013

Is Alma Har'el's Film Bombay Beach A Case Of Poverty Porn?

By the looks of it, online at least, the majority of folks watching the film Bombay Beach have been thoroughly duped by the emotive conceits of surrealist cinematography. Barely able to contain their excitement, they craft their reviews of the film holding firm to the belief that the director, Alma Har'el, did the long-neglected desert town a favor by filming it.

Never has a quick trip through poverty been quite this beautiful. Critics praise this documentary for "weaving a miraculous poem," calling it a stunning, visually rich, ethereal portrait of the death of the American dream (which is still very much alive for Wall Street bankers, corporate executives and international filmmakers).

But lets get real. All the American Gothic atmospherics in the world can't gild the ugly truth of this film: Bombay Beach is a one way street. Any "favors" are the prerogative of the director who trades in her conscience for a camera (because she can) and shows us that there's no better springboard for raising an artist's profile (and fortunes) than someone else's misery. Consequently, the viewership's only relationship to the individuals in the film is the voyeur's gaze, a crude rubbernecking that fails to sensitize them to the magnitude of what they are seeing.

Unsurprisingly, Har'el states in a Guardian article that she doesn't think her film is about the demise of the American dream because she sees the protagonists' privations as a variation on that dream. From her pretty perch, Har'el empties the word "dream" of any meaning. In her world there's little difference between struggling, living, and dreaming because the systematic pressures of poverty, inadequate healthcare, racism, and rural neglect are inspirational abstractions. But the disturbing degree of socio-economic disintegration we see in the decaying town of Bombay Beach is very real and it's not a dream. It's a nightmare - that ill-informed film directors see fit to sugarcoat with choreographed dance numbers.

Har'el's project embodies a classic exploitative dynamic: well-connected, hip western academic film director enters a land of penury, goes native embedding herself in the community, gains trust, forges bonds, gathers enough raw materiel to sate ego, exits, edits, promotes, and attends film festivals to wild acclaim -- where she makes promises to the cameras interviewing her to send the subjects of the film (her so-called collaborators who had no role in editing the film and never saw a rough cut) some photos of her having a great time clinking glasses. At least that's the way it appears after trawling the Internet. Example: "Bombay Beach -- Interview with Alma Har'el at the Berlinale 2011" 

As the director and producer, Har'el I am sure, doesn't believe she's doing this unpaid cast of characters a disservice. But she pays homage to their destitution without compensating them for their efforts. Instead, she exploits an isolated community for personal gain, profiting off a weaker party. Har'el didn't make a film about mobile, privileged folks after all, like, lets say, a group of dentists (as far as Kramer is concerned that's a touchy subject too). No, she made a movie about people who will never know her jet-setting lifestyle. Har'el has obligations as a filmmaker toward her subjects. Artists are not exempt from ethical responsibility.

The important questions here concern the sort of capital Har'el is exchanging, the value she is imparting to the community of Bombay Beach. Is she proffering anything other than five seconds of fame? Is she promoting anything more than the feel-good bromide that the poor possess a unique dignity, an admirable ability to persevere and "create community" against all odds? Glamorizing poverty whitewashes the crushing reality of what it means to be poor, to lack, to confront inaction in the face of great need.

What's the difference between Bombay Beach as a film and the so-called fine feeling cultivated by the sentimental novel? Both extoll the virtues of "rightly-motivated" empathy, yet generate reductionist responses from the reader/viewer (as James Baldwin argued). One does this via literary realism, the other through whimsical cinematic experimentation. And both are deeply troubling. Even if all parties are consenting, a film like Bombay Beach lends its power to classist structures. When do marginalized classes get to march camera in hand into the Hollywood hills and gawk at the wealth and bounty found there? Such a reversal of roles is unthinkable. Humanist smut like Bombay Beach reinforces the status quo, challenging nothing, expanding zero horizons.

I can't find anywhere on the Internet an explanation of how the actors/subjects were remunerated financially (if I am mistaken please let me know), though it does look like there's been a public campaign to respond to their basic needs. I just hope that the spotlighting of these folks' unfortunate condition as a function of Har'el's fantasies isn't being interpreted as fair enough payment. Five seconds of fame is not legal tender. Har'el didn't passively document human lives, she asked people to don masks and dance. I mean that literally, it's a scene in the film. She put her subjects to work. 

Despite what the critics say, the artistic value of Har'el's film does not provide us with powerful commentary on class relations in America. If this director didn't supply us with an endless supply of insipid garbage, I would expect more than poverty porn from her.

In her interview at the Girls Can Play blog Har'el is oblivious to questions of power and privilege and her implication in them as a filmmaker. The most damming evidence comes from her own mouth. Har'el is clearly not capable of confronting the value of her own creation by forcing it to answer to larger political realities. So instead we end up with a documentary where real content is replaced with highly affected aesthetic pleasures that make the viewer feel good about humanizing the poor as an "object of comfortable concern," as Edward Said put it.

One film critic described Bombay Beach as a "visual feast for the eyes." Indeed it is. But as a big bold slice of poverty porn it is anything but a guilt-free indulgence.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Best Of Sarah Kendzior

The following articles are five essential reads by Sarah Kendzior, a recent anthropology PhD graduate, "expert on how the internet is used in authoritarian states," and burgeoning social critic.

I have reaped both knowledge and solace from Kendzior's work. She's a fiercely independent intellectual unencumbered by institutional affiliations and loyalty, and in my opinion, a true public intellectual with a clear-eyed emancipatory politic. Her writings challenge systems of oppression, exclusion and enclosure; unafraid of holding to account the spheres closest to her, she regularly critiques academia and higher education.

As a columnist for Aljazeera English, her forte is probing how the convergence of a "post-employment" economy with systems of prestige, like academia, reaffirm inequality and widen the gap between rich and poor.

If you are struggling to make a living, struggling to pay your way through a college education, struggling with student loan debt, struggling to find gainful employment, struggling to stay true to yourself, struggling to not be corrupted by a mammon-monied world, she is speaking to you. She is documenting your frustrations and giving you the tools to fight back:

"As I have previously argued, higher education in the United States is no longer a path out of poverty, but a road into it - a fact to which administrators seem oblivious. Speakers at the annual meeting of the Council of Graduate Schools blamed the debt crisis on students not "living cheaply enough", a baffling admonition to adults struggling to afford rent and health care on less than $20,000 per year, much less cover the entry costs to academia (in some fields, applicants must pay to see job listings).

"In most professions, salaries below the poverty line would be cause for alarm. In academia, they are treated as a source of gratitude. Volunteerism is par for the course - literally. Teaching is touted as a "calling", with compensation an afterthought. One American research university offers its PhD students a salary of $1000 per semester for the "opportunity" to design and teach a course for undergraduates, who are each paying about $50,000 in tuition. The university calls this position "Senior Teaching Assistant" because paying an instructor so far below minimum wage is probably illegal.

"On March 4, Olga Khazan, the new editor of the Global section of the Atlantic, sent an email to Nate Thayer, a veteran journalist covering Asian political affairs. Khazan had seen an article Thayer had written about North Korea and liked it. She wanted to know if he could "repurpose" it for the Atlantic website.
"We unfortunately can't pay you for it," she wrote Thayer. "But we do reach 13 million readers a month."

Thayer was appalled. He explained that he was a professional journalist "not in the habit of giving my services for free to for-profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children".

Khazan apologised and explained that the Atlantic was out of money. She told him the most they paid for an original story was $100, but they did not have $100 at the moment. All they could offer Thayer was "exposure" to benefit his "professional goals". Thayer's professional goal was to pay his bills. Outraged, he posted the exchange on his blog. It went viral within hours.

"Let's review what life was like for an American of Faust's generation. In 1968, when Faust graduated from Bryn Mawr, tuition and board at a four-year private university cost an average of $2,545. As the scion of a wealthy political family, it is doubtful Faust had to worry about affording tuition, but neither did most members of her generation, since the cost of attending college was relatively low. Today, Bryn Mawr costs $53,040 per year - more than the American median household income.

In 1968, $2,545 was about the most you could expect to pay for college - most schools cost half as much, and many public universities were still free. Faust's generation graduated with little to no debt, unlike today's university graduate, who owes an average of $27,000. After graduating, Faust decided to pursue a life of public service and got a job - an actual, paying job, right out of college - with the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The hippie movement reached its height in 1968, but it is perhaps difficult for the modern mind to comprehend the desire to "turn on, tune in and drop out" when such a novel option as post-college employment was available. Today's graduate seeking a career in government often winds up in an internship, where they work full-time for little to no pay.

"On April 8, 2013, the New York Times reported that 76 percent of American university faculty are adjunct professors - an all-time high. Unlike tenured faculty, whose annual salaries can top $160,000, adjunct professors make an average of $2,700 per course and receive no health care or other benefits.

Most adjuncts teach at multiple universities while still not making enough to stay above the poverty line. Some are on welfare or homeless. Others depend on charity drives held by their peers. Adjuncts are generally not allowed to have offices or participate in faculty meetings. When they ask for a living wage or benefits, they can be fired. Their contingent status allows them no recourse

Bonus! An interview.

Friday, May 17, 2013

"Hunting" On The Reservation

"Sexual violence scars Native American women"
- Kavitha Chekuru, Aljazeera English

"New law aims to protect indigenous women on US reservations from sky-high rates of sexual assault and offender impunity."

This is a really important read that examines the massive level of sexual violence Native women are subjected to in America. It reveals the long and painful shadow that genocide, colonization, brutal wars and forced displacement cast on contemporary Native American life, and the lack of laws to protect the most vulnerable. Chekuru writes:
Indigenous women in the US experience some of the highest rates of sexual assault in the country. According to the US Department of Justice, nearly half of all Native American women have been raped, beaten, or stalked by an intimate partner; one in three will be raped in their lifetime; and on some reservations, women are murdered at a rate 10 times higher than the national average.

According to the Department of Justice, 86 percent of rapes and sexual assaults against Native American women are committed by non-Native American men.
The US House of Representatives' recent re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) with new protections for Native American women "will address part of the crisis" but still falls short:
The reauthorised act seeks to address part of the crisis by extending tribal jurisdiction over non-Native Americans who commit crimes of domestic violence or sexual assault against a Native American spouse or partner. Tribal governments in the US currently do not have jurisdiction over non-Native Americans who commit crimes on their land. 

[But] for instance, the act would not apply to someone in the situation Brunner's teenage daughter found herself in last year. She was raped last summer by four strangers from outside the reservation. 

"I call it hunting - non-natives come here hunting. They know they can come onto our lands and rape us with impunity because they know that we can't touch them," Brunner says. "The US government has created that atmosphere."

Euro-American injustice against indigenous nations (across the world) is still awaiting redress.

To quote Anthony Burgess, a colonist himself, “Colonialism. The enforced spread of the rule of reason. But who is going to spread it among the colonizers?”

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

 "On Quitting" 
- Keguro Macharia, The New Inquiry 

"On Quitting" is a wonderfully poetic piece by Keguro Macharia about the precariousness of being a Black intellectual in America. He describes in vivid, nonlinear detail the devastating sum of the colonial experience in a white supremacist society. The United States is still a colonialist nation whose contemporary reality is the ongoing tale of “slavery’s long shadow and racism’s insistent pressing.” America has the power to estrange and colonize natives and non-natives, like Macharia, alike. In that sense white supremacy doesn't discriminate.

Adding to the inescapable toxicity of operating as Other in a racialized society is the disfigurement of university life by the cultures of professionalism and corporatism; money and status and annual reports are prioritized over the life of the mind, including the minds of the students. This anti-intellectual atmosphere is one he chooses to leave behind, despite having a tenure-track job.

Liberatory writers like Franz Fanon help guide Macharia's conscience-stricken body through the minefields of racism, class, greed and mental illness to a somewhat safer place outside of the US where the decolonization of his spirit might stand a chance, to “a space," he writes, "within which scabbing can begin, and, eventually, scars that will remain tender for way too long.”

Macharia’s efforts to save himself become a form of resistance within the context of a fundamentally unjust social order that destroys and distorts the colonized being down to the core. The act of recording his experience is a powerful discursive intervention in the racist western intellectual and cultural traditions that equate blackness to "disposability and killability."

In such a context, in which hope is rejected outright as "cruel optimism," it is astonishing Macharia's words carry such an indomitable spirit and beauty. I have nothing but admiration for writing of this kind, for Macharia's painful honesty and moral consistency. This is the work of a freedom fighter.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

A Travelsty: Travel Isn't The Best Form Of Education

- Erica Ales, Sociological Images

It turns out world travel doesn’t make one more worldly, and by “worldly” I mean sensitive to other peoples’ oppression.

That's depressing. But not surprising.

Erica Ales's study shows that time spent studying abroad did not increase a young person’s awareness of unequal power relations between different cultures and the larger political realities enabling them, particularly the neo-colonial power arrangements that continue to haunt societies previously colonized by western powers.

In particular, study abroad students were just as blind as non-study abroad students to the moral implications of “slumming” or “poverty tourism”; in this instance, the fashion industry’s exploitation of the people and everyday scenes of poorer nations for use as props in high-fashion photo shoots.

These young globtrotters failed to deviate from the Eurocentric script that objectifies and exotifies individuals from less powerful non-western nations, yet they viewed themselves as more “culturally competent" and aware.

Looks like the privilege to travel begets a privileged ignorance.

(Even a monkey knows inequality when it sees it.)