On May 17, 2017, I had the honor of engaging in conversation with the Haitian film director, Arnold Antonin, after the screening of his film Six Exceptional Haitian Women (6 Femmes d’exception). This screening was one in a series of evenings with the filmmaker as part of the first inaugural film screening series of Brooklyn College’s new CUNY Haitian Studies Institute under the directorship of Jean-Eddy Saint Paul.

Arnold Antonin

After the screening of this subtle and powerful film, I made a few statements about the film and then asked Antonin some questions about his filmmaking. A short précis of these remarks, as well as a brief description of the film follows.

As is expressed in its title, Six Exceptional Haitian Women presents day-in-the-life portraits of its well-regarded subjects, each a practicing artist, and we come to learn, a woman in her eighties or nineties.

Micheline Laudun Denis

It was my utter surprise at the characters’ ages that occasioned my first remarks. Without the accompanying subtitles explaining their ages the fact of their shared longevity would not be legible. In fact, when I saw the film the first time on the small screen of my computer, I did not notice these titles, thus I only realized the age of the subjects when I read the description of the film on Antonin’s website:

The youngest is 80. the least young is 105. They are Odette Roy Fombrun, Paulette Poujol Oriol, Emerante De Pradines, Micheline Laudun Denis, Vivianne Gauthier, Madeleine Desrosiers Tizo. They are active and creative women who have significantly contributed to the social and cultural life of their country. Each has the Elixir of Youth and reveals its secrets to us. They are all exceptional women

I had not clocked their actual ages for two important reasons that reveal a great deal about the film: 1) the women present themselves, and then are also presented by the filmmaker, as lively, engaged, active and bursting with life 2) the subject of their age takes second stage to the more central questions of the film: how to be an artist, how to live a good life, how to be a Haitian woman.

Odette Roy Fombrun

This gentle, hands-off approach is another noteworthy strength of Antonin’s filmmaking where his light hand allows the women’s strong presence, joie de vivre, and daily rhythms to dominate the framing and pacing of their presentation. While Antonin is not absent—we see him in some shots interacting with his subject and hear him at times—this is not his story, nor need it be given the combined power of voice, presence and artistry exhibited by his esteemed subjects. Instead, Antonin’s infrequent presence and interactions are discreet and friendly. There is an ease in these interactions, as well as the courage to take his time with them, that allow his subjects to comfortable, engaged, lively, and honest. Their conversations move with little self-consciousness from their artistic influences, youth and families, to their sex lives and current artistic projects. In conversation, Antonin explained that his subjects were all already well-known to him, either through their shared engagement within the lively artistic communities of Haiti or through his mother, another woman of their generation, and friend to several of them.

Paulette Poujol Oriol

The film’s subtle but pronounced feminism was also notable, another result of Antonin’s understated style. In his film, women are capable, powerful, successful, and resilient artists working within diverse traditions and genres—dance, music, performance, midwifery, writing. Some are currently married, others widowed, some never married. They have children and are childless. They seem to span several stations across a spectrum of education and class. What they all share, however, is a notable commitment to making significant spaces, across their long lives and currently, for their own art practice, health, and chosen ways of living. Perhaps given their age, or their comfort with Antonin, they each speak about this self-centering without hesitation or defensiveness. Rarely do we see women—in cinema or daily life—who exhibit this level of self-confidence. This is a noticeable and refreshing pleasure.

Vivianne Gauthier

So, instead of speaking about feminism overtly it is enacted in every frame of Six Exceptional Haitian Women. In our conversation about the film with a predominantly Haitian audience, spectators named the women’s effortless empowered self-inhabitation as particularly noteworthy given the predominance of a particular breed of Haitian machismo which would have formed and framed the lives of these women born in the early part of the previous century, and even today.

Emerante De Pradines

What we learn from Antonin’s powerful film, and its equally powerful subjects, is itself exceptional. By allowing us time to sit with, meet, and learn from these Haitian women, a summative lesson is expressed by the film, again without didacticism or heavy intervention: a long and good life is built upon passionate realized commitments to art, love, nation, and self.

 

Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me: A Fake News Event” featuring Brooklyn College Professors MJ Robinson (Journalism), Katherine Fry (Television & Radio), and Beth Evans (Library) addressing the problems posed by fake news in current media. Part of We Stand Against Hate: a series of lectures, workshops, concerts, programs, and events that will elevate discourse around controversial political issues, and foster inclusiveness and peace at Brooklyn College.

Check out more We Stand Against Hate events:

In “Snap Makes a Bet on the Cultural Supremacy of the Camera,” Farhad Manjoo writes: “The growing importance of cameras — of images rather than just text — is altering much about culture. It’s transforming many people’s personal relationships. It’s changing the kind of art and entertainment we produce. You might even credit cameras — or blame them — for our more emotional, and less rational, politics.”

“Most-tweeted emojis from anti-Trump protests,” Hamdan Azhar, Prismoji

Manjoo continues: “Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist who is writing a book about how the internet is changing language, said Snapchat lenses and filters were a form of what linguists call ‘phatic communication,’ which is communication that is meant to ease social interactions instead of to convey information.”

In my own, early (2011) work about YouTube, I called YouTube videos (which now seem downright old-fashioned in their cheeky claims to duration: 2 minutes long!) slogans: “pithy, precise, rousing calls to action or consumption, or action as consumption; bite-sized, word-sized, postage-sized cinema; strong, intense, interchangeable, and forgettable films.”

At that time, I argued that the internet platforms that we were being given for free, while allowing for more access to communication, hid their real costs behind spurious claims of commitment to democratic self-expression. The actual price, of course, was the pillage of our words and images (all hail web 2.0!), the auctioning off of our very selves through the mining and selling of our consumption habits, and ultimately, the diminishment of the shape and vernacular of our communication.

“All this focus on fake Facebook news obscures a much bigger story about the way social media—the endless public opining and sharing of information—is reshaping politics. Even if you’ve never given much thought to its meaning, you’ve probably heard someone say ‘the medium is the message,’ the famous dictum of media theorist Marshall McLuhan.” (Donald Trump: The First President of Our Post-Literate Age, Joe Weisenthal)

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Practicing strategic contemplation—what Rosylyn Rhee explains as having “to be comfortable being uncomfortable [because] so much of making documentary films is embracing the unknown”—is one of six “principles of feminist filmmaking” represented in Cámara Retórica: A Feminist Filmmaking Methodology for Rhetoric and Composition by Alexandra Hidalgo. The principles she elaborates point to one ethical media tradition that contemplates and thereby unmakes the frameworks that support fake news—truth/fiction, power and ownership within mediamaking and consumption—by engaging media logics outside of capital, including diversity, inter-dependence, mentorship, contemplation, and a primary commitment to social justice.

Contemplate Some More:

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Today I begin my first class at CUNY, ITP Core 2: Interactive Technology and the University: Theory, Design, and Practice, co-taught with Luke Waltzer, Director, Teaching and Learning Center, CUNY GC. I’m thrilled!

Here’s a few bullet points that can serve as a brief and relevant introduction to my past and current interests related to this class and digital thinking, making and pedagogy:

  • My DH Story: An Invitation (May 27, 2015) is a post I wrote in a similar fashion, introducing myself to DH Summer Fellows of an Institute I ran at the Claremont Colleges for two summers. It spells out some of my thinking about DH—a sub-field of academic inquiry and practice that holds some of my work (and some of this class)—while providing a list of projects and links to most of the digital projects I have worked on over the past 10 or so years (when I moved pretty firmly from video to the internet): particularly Learning from YouTube, FemTechNet, Feminist Online Spaces, and Ev-ent-anglement.
  • Visual Research Methods 2014 (January 7, 2015) is a post I wrote to try to sum up my students’ work over six iterations of this course at the Claremont Graduate University from 2010-2015. In this methods class for graduate students in the Humanities, I supported students to think and make visually (and digitally) across five traditions: video essays, documentary, ethnographic film, academic blogging and digital storytelling. That blog post holds a lot of links if you are interested, but I’ve culled a few here, pretty randomly, to give a tiny sense of the kinds of work they made, and that I support: Facing Down the DST/DH Divide, A digital story about digital storytelling the classroom, Instagram as Digital Storytelling and Visual Culture Video Essays published in Audiovisual Thinking.
  • I am presenting this as a post on my blog as a self-referential nod to my always changing commitment(s) to writing and sharing academic work in this and other digital formats. See “Why Don’t I Blog: On Internet Cultural Production in 2016.”
  • Given the unfolding devastation of Trumpism, I will personally engage in more direct scholarly, digital activism and education in my work this spring, and with students in this class if they are so inclined. Here are four of my recent efforts in this direction: Visual Resistance, Watching/Making Race, BC Against Trump, and Four Hard Truths about Fake News.
  • I will also be engaging this spring in an inter-CUNY research project, Feminist Archive/Small Archive/Media Archive, whereby I use my own 300-strong collection of feminist, queer, anti-racist, experimental, AIDS VHS video tapes as a test case to work through best practices for storing, sharing, and teaching with similar personal/professional materially formatted archives. See this recent essay that begins to make use of this archive: Stacked on Her Office Shelves: Stewardship and AIDS Archives.

I look forward to meeting you all today, and to learning about some of your digital research interests, practices and commitments. Below, please find a video I recently made with Jean Carlomusto and Hugh Ryan for International AIDS Day With (out) Art 2016. It also thinks about video archives and represents my ongoing commitments to videomaking as another form of digital pedagogy and activism.

I will be a guest speaker at Tara McPherson’s USC graduate course, Activism in the Digital Age, today at 11. I had organized a loose conversation/presentation for the class visit about my previous work on/in this subject (see below), but have instead decided to use my time with students engaged in thinking about activism, to do something about and in this space given what you see below. I will work with these young scholars, as collaborators, on a digital intervention to the video below (and other related fake news). Considering the status of our work, as scholars, as activism, will be part of our effort.

(NOTE TO READERS: I have not yet watched this, didn’t have the stomach for it, but doing it together, soon, with the students is one right way to engage, I’m sure of it, as deeply dismayed as I am to put this on my blog)

Given our current media/political moment, I felt compelled to contribute my (sorry) academic knowledge of fake media (and YouTube) to the larger viral conversation about Fake News and Social Media. So, two days ago when the story of fake news went really large, I pitched an op ed on Fake News to JStor Daily where I have written once before on images of viral black death. Considering whether such writing, and digital information sharing, is itself a form of  activism has itself been part of my own scholarly project (although not my fake one), one that I had planned to share today.

Instead, I’m going to model something else: that the doing of thinking and sharing knowledge, in community, in collaboration, in the academy (and then out, on the internet) is an empowering and necessary act in times of moral, intellectual, political confusion and uncertainty. That doing this FAST is part of the dubious internet, digital logic that produces fake news, and other unseemly things in the process. However, writing an opinion piece, while living one’s own life and maintaining its many commitments, becomes actually possible and hopefully enjoyable and certainly more powerful when shared with others (I also suggest that the slow work about this, an entire semester for instance, or a scholarly essay or even monograph, will be more necessary than ever in these horrid times).

Thus, today I will ask the students to do something together with me: to help me build a kick-ass reading list for the JStor article, itself a form of the digital literacy pedagogy within and beyond academia (and on the internet) that is the article’s very proposition for academic response (if not activism). Part of JStor daily’s commitment to literacy is that the reading lists it provides as part of its content are available to all readers, purposefully breaking its own paywall in the process.

At any later date, I invite the USC students (and others so inclined) to peruse what would have been my presentation on my earlier work on/as activism in the digital age, including:

  • my writing about leaving the Internet as activism and engaging on the streets
  • or in the prison
  • or in building context for digital media in rooms that can better hold it
  • or through my collaborative work inside and critical of the internet (and YouTube), instead together making the the digital feminist teaching, spaces, and community we want and deserve