I write this post with a number of recent events and films in my head–Roman Polanski’s arrest, the film “Precious,” and the recent arrest of a Chicago college professor on charges of distributing child pornography.

As the mother of a fourteen year old daughter, I should first say that I am OK with Polanski’s rearrest and imprisonment for the crime of sexual abuse with a thirteen year old in 1977. As a film studies scholar, though, I will add to this assessment that I think the judge should take into consideration issues such as the victim’s forgiveness of the criminal act, Polanski’s own damaged life (mother died in Auschwitz, his wife’s grotesque murder), and the neglect and the inconsistency of Polanski not being arrested earlier by the Swiss police. But, as we should know about the outcome of criminal cases, it all depends on the judge and legal representation…

Questions about consent, abuse, pornography and representation–legal and otherwise–continue to haunt us as a society. The scandal and legal cases surrounding the NEA funding of Mapplethorpe’s gallery shows in the late 80’s included photos of the three year old “Rosie” facing the camera directly without any underwear on (Currently on view at the Guggenheim’s collection web site). Galleries, such as a recent one in Cincinnati, continue to struggle with the legal issue of the representation of children, nudity, pornography and art. One gallery would not display this photo until, as the UK Independent reports, “Rosie’s mother, Lady Beatrix Nevill, signed an affidavit stating that the photograph was taken with her full consent, that she did not view it as pornographic.”

As a culture and nation we still haven’t dealt thoroughly with Mapplethorpe (or homosexuality). Since Mapplethorpe, the U.S. has elected Republican presidents primarily, Clinton and Lewinsky committed their sins in the White House, and the issues of children, sexuality and pornography were suddenly no longer up for any public discussion.

After hearing about the surprising arrest of a colleague on child pornography charges this week, I have to admit that I hesitated to Google the term “child pornography” or to look for the Mapplethorpe photo “Rosie” online. (But after finding it on the Guggenheim site, I felt more comfortable.) Some of the next links that came up when I Googled child pornography online were the FBI “Innocent Images” site, as well as law firm sites devoted to defending clients who have been accused of “computer sex crimes”.

The criminal act of sexually abusing a child for the purpose of producing pornography is not legally separated from the consumption of it, including the manufacture or digitally altered representation of child pornography (although the sentences may differ). These tragic acts of sexual abuse are often connected to the distribution of the pornography (but not always) The sentences for consuming and distributing representations of child pornography are severe–minimum of 5 years in prison. Based on the number of law firms advertising on the web in computer sex crimes, I assume that there are plenty of clients right now.

Like many audiences, I was emotionally overwhelmed by the enormity of the abuse and denigrations that Claireece Precious Jones had to endure under the supervision of her sexually abusive parents in the film “Precious.” The depiction of incest or childhood sexual abuse is a brave and neglected topic in the media; in part, because of the legal complexities with the representation of children as the victims of criminal sexual acts and childhood pornography. The depiction of Precious’s father raping her at a young age is carefully shot and edited. As A.O. Scott’s NYTimes review describes these criminal acts of sexual abuse, “the facts of Precious’s life are also laid out with unsparing force (though not in overly graphic detail).” But the questions of representation and legality of showing child sexual acts are still in my head. Even though the 26 year old Gabby Sidibe brilliantly depicts the abuse and recovery of the teenage Precious–it is still the depiction of an underage teen in a sexual act.

Precious is an important step in the direction of having a more open discussion about both incest and child pornography. (Just as the US State dept is starting to more actively address the global problem of child sex trafficking). We should allow this powerful story to help us think about legal questions connected to representation, sexuality and the internet.

The Internet has the ability to function as a kind of addictive informational drug. Not all Internet ‘users’ are strong enough to withstand the open access and availability of illegal pornographic images. A combination of the law and required mental health counseling for the damaged seem required before we lock the doors and throw away the keys on First Amendment violators.

We at least need more of a discussion about access to images of sexuality and the denial of that access.

Interested in more reading?
See Amy Adler’s “The Perverse Law of Child Pornography” in The Columbia Law Review
Laura Kipnis, “Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America”


Since AMC 21 East is walking distance from Loyola’s Water Tower campus, I managed to squeeze in several good films for this year’s Chicago International Film Festival. And surprise, surprise…ALL of the top films (as well as my personal favorites) were female directed! (Now, why was I so surprised…?)
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I got to see top award winners “Mississippi Damned” and the British film “Fish Tank.” “Mississippi Damned” was produced, directed, written and edited by two talented USC women graduates–professional and romantic partners Tina Mabry and Morgan Stiff. Mabry and Stiff produced this film independently.

Mabry wrote the film based on her own life story in Mississippi and the couple have successfully turned her story into a moving and effective film about family, trauma, abuse and perseverance in the racially charged South. Mabry and Stiff were both at the screening, which–particularly in the case of this kind of independent film–always adds to the sense of accomplishment.

“FIsh Tank,” another female directed film, and winner of the Silver Hugo Special Jury award, also displayed some chilling storytelling around questions of family, class and abuse. Short film director Andrea Arnold directed “Fish Tank,” only her second feature, and it has already been recognized at Cannes and now at Sundance. One of the highlights of this film is the nonprofessional actress, Katie Jarvis. Arnold’s casting agent scouted Jarvis at a train station screaming at her boyfriend on another platform. Her performance and the directing of this young talent both deserve acclaim.

“Precious” with an award-winning performance by Gabourey Sidibe and directed by “girl-friendly” filmmaker Lee Daniels–I missed but Alicia saw and is writing about it (I hope).

But finally, my favorite female-directed film (and my favorite film of the fest) was the documentary “Girls on the Wall” directed by Heather Ross about teenage inmates at Warrenville Prison (average age of female prisoner–16). Ross said at the CIFF screening that she had listened in LA to a radio story on NPR about the theatre advocacy group, Storycatchers. Storycatchers, based in Chicago, work with teenage inmates and help them to produce musicals drawn from the drama and creativity of their own experiences. After hearing the radio story, Ross quit her job in LA and moved to Illinois, since she knew that’s where the real story was hiding.

And a powerful story it is. The young prisoners recreate the stories of their families’ lives–the addictions, the abandonments and failures of the parents who could not fill the role or expectations of being parents, but whom were loved by their daughters regardless, it seems, of their faults.

I found myself weeping through much of the film, and then, after listening to one of the former prisoners at the screening, I found myself weeping more.

“Girls on the Wall” is an ITVS PBS co-production, which means it’s basically independently produced, but will get a national PBS screening (in Jan, I think) but not much cash until a distribution deal. Every Women’s Center in the country should buy a copy of this film, as should shelters that serve the lower income public and Women’s Studies programs at universities. It’s powerful stuff, and I hope Ross gets more support to continue outreach with her film and with Storycatchers.

You can find “Girls on the Wall” on Facebook. Their web site–www.fabulousfemalesmovie.com–is not fully loaded yet (but great title!) Correction–Ross just informed me that it is http://www.girlsonthewallmovie.com.

Outrage at the Cinema

October 3, 2009

The students have humbled me into writing more posts. I regularly post a column to the blog “Mama, PhD” for Inside Higher Ed. But I SHOULD also be posting here! Let me cover my past few weeks in cinema, which, it seems, have dealt primarily with outrage at the world.

Films I’ve seen lately that remind me of “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”:
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American Radical: the Trials of Norman Finkelstein
The Baader-Meinhof Complex
Capitalism: A Love Story
Bright Star (which does not quite count in this ‘outrage’ category, but Fannie Brawne was pretty upset that she couldn’t marry John Keats..)

American Radical:
In my time away from my kids as a filmmaker and media studies professor in Chicago, I have a lot of my evenings free to see the latest films, which are vital to refresh me, inspire me, keep me thinking…. Last week (Sept. 13th) I watched the premiere of “American Radical: the Trials of Norman Finkelstein” at Chicago’s Underground Film Festival. I went last Sunday on opening night when the film directors, David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier, were supposed to appear, but did not. As festival director Bryan Wendorf explained, the next Monday was when Rossier’s daughter was attending her first day of school, so the audience certainly could not expect him to miss that event, and the directors would return to Chicago later in the week to make up for their absence.

“American Radical” documents the story of former DePaul University professor of Political Science, Norman Finkelstein — his family history, his research on the ‘Holocaust Industry’, his continued critiques of Israel’s actions against the Palestinian people, his conflicts with Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz, and finally the denial of Finkelstein’s application for tenure at DePaul and the protest that followed. (See IHE’s stories.)

The most powerful part of the film for me was the portrayal of Finkelstein’s relationship with his mother, Mary, now deceased and a survivor of the Majdanek concentration camp and the Warsaw ghetto. (His father survived Auschwitz’s death march.) FInkelstein states in the film how much his mother influenced him—her courage, her determination, her refusal to accept any further loss of human life after her experience in the camps. This determination, Finkelstein acknowledges, drives him to put himself literally on the front lines defending the Palestinian people, and, as his mother also worried, “destroying himself” in other ways. The film suggests that Finkelstein’s absorption with his mother’s values is both responsible for his courageous research and also for his inability to negotiate on certain issues when, perhaps, he should…— e.g. accusations about Dershowitz.

“American Radical” is a well-done, intimate documentary that covers Finkelstein’s personal biography, his global, experiential research, and the character flaw that led, in part, to his tenure downfall (and his own subtle acknowledgement of this flaw). The directors of the film objectively portray a story that is loaded with the ideological landmines of the Israeli/Palestinian story, including the legal vulnerabilities of the academic tenure process and how it can be affected by world politics.

Several of Finkelstein’s former students and organizers of the DePaul protest over his tenure denial were at the screening, and it was obvious that their disillusionment and experience with a high profile academic and political case had changed their lives. The students’ interpersonal relations with Finkelstein — a popular teacher and advisor at DePaul — were clearly powerful moments that would guide these students’ life decisions in the near future, as much as Finkelstein’s mother guided and inspired his own research.

“The Baader-Meinhof Complex”

I would wager a bet that most US students have never heard of the Red Army faction. Why? RAF terrorism is a little too direct for Americans. Of course, the U.S. now has 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing, as well as assassinations of doctors like George Tiller, but we seem to contextualize these events as unrelated to US, because they are committed by outsiders, ‘crazies’, non-WASPs–folks who are different from ‘mainstream’ Americans.

Well, it’s just this kind of outrage at the capitalist west and our military industrial complex that shows up in the “Baader-Meinhof Complex.” The powerful part of the film for me is how it chronicles the journey of Ulrike Meinhof from a recognized journalist of a left wing magazine and divorced mom into an armed terrorist who orchestrates murders of politicians (and former Nazi SS) and plans to give her kids up for adoption in Palestine. Meinhof’s role with the Red Army faction is indicative of what happened to a number of radicals in the 60s and 70s surrounding the Vietnam war. They were seriously outraged and took militant action, in some cases terrorist action.

What the film leaves out that I discovered online is that Meinhof had a brain injury at a young age from a tumor being removed. Unbeknownst to her family, doctors removed her brain after she died in prison and studied it for close to two decades. One doctor concluded that the trauma from this brain injury probably resulted in her psychological transformation. Meinhof’s daughter finally recovered the brain and buried it with the rest of her mother, after she died in prison. I’m not sure how this info would have changed the film. except to explain Meinhof’s outrage and character transformation better. However, the other RAS members did not suffer brain injuries and Meinhof was pretty radical before her brain injury…

The Baader-Meinhof Complex” is harsh and violent and depicts an era of youthful political rage that turned destructive. I think we should study 20th and 21st century terrorist history more in the U.S.. If only to figure out how to address this youthful rage.

Here’s Meinhof’s most recognized quote:
Protest is when I say this does not please me.
Resistance is when I ensure what does not please me occurs no more.

“Capitalism: A Love Story”
I just saw this new Michael Moore film a few nights ago in Chicago. It’s getting ambivalent reviews, but most critics applaud Moore’s enthusiasm while slapping him for his same old performative strategies (e.g. wrapping a ‘crime scene’ ribbon around parts of Wall Street).

What I found most effective about the film was that the night I went, there were also workers from Republic Windows and Doors–the Chicago company where workers took over the building in a sit-in last December after being told that their jobs were ending in 3 days. The sit-in resulted in a financial victory for the workers–close to $2 million in severance pay for their lost wages. Proceeds from the $20 movie tickets also went to workers and their families.

The other story in “Capitalism” that stood out for me was the airline pilot–Sullenberger–the one who did that heroic landing in the Hudson river. Moore includes footage of Capt. ‘Sully’ testifying before an empty Congress about the low wages regional pilots receive–so low ($20-40K) that some of them have to take a second job. Then I noticed that the NY Times this week carried another heroic story about Sullenberger reflying the path over the Hudson, but did not even mention his appearance in “Capitalism” nor the issue of underpaid pilots that he has also taken on in his union work…

Last film–Jane Campion’s “Bright Star” A lovely ode to poetry, romance, and stifled feminine desire and income. If you like Keats or sewing, you should see it. Actually, if you just want to support talented female directors, you should buy a ticket. Hollywood money did not fund this film–UK, Pathe, Australia did…

Joe Winston is a friend of Eliz and Tom’s. He started out in Chicago public access with the smart, funny “This Week in Joe’s Basement”–now on Mediaburn. org. He and wife Laura Cohen just finished producing “What’s the Matter with Kansas” based on the Thomas Frank book by the same name. Ebert just gave them a great review. The film is playing at the Siskel Center through Thursday, Sept. 24th at 6:15 and 8:15. Joe just told me that Tom paid him the first money he ever made in television in Chicago–$100. Maybe we’ll bring Joe to class!

“Exploring New Routes to the Indies”

Ant Farm

September 2, 2009

Ant Farm


August 26, 2009

I first got bit by the independent cinema bug as a 20 year old in college.  I grew up in a family of daughters in Florida, enrolled in ballet classes and loving the Sound of Music, Little House on the Prairie and the Waltons.  (We used to make the younger neighborhood kids act out the Sound of Music characters…)

I didn’t know what an independent film was until I starting taking modern dance classes and enrolled in a course on “Politics and the Media.”  We watched Coppola’s film The Conversation starring Gene Hackman.  It’s a film about sound, paranoia and interpretation and I’d never seen anything like it…. The Conversation showed me that film can approach literature in terms of depth, ambiguity and suggestiveness.  (I was really an English major first–Political Scientist second…this would get reversed at various points in my life).The Conversation

By the time I hit graduate school, I was introduced to the fact that film can also equal poetry or painting, and, in fact, film recombined the arts in fascinating aesthetic ways.  I wound up writing about turn-of the-century dancer/filmmaker Loie Fuller because her experiments with lights, costumes, bamboo poles, and painting on film really defined for me that structuralist, poetic impulse to investigate the medium and its aesthetic possibilities.

Maya Deren’s early films and, later on, Brakhage’s Mothlight also went down these poetic, painterly paths….

While in graduate school at UF, Gainesville had the bad luck of being visited by serial killer Danny Rollings.  Suddenly, my feminist theory reading group didn’t make so much sense in the face of this macabre violence.  So, a group of friends and I picked up some cameras–video and film–and started making experimental documentaries.  Like Tom and his early compatriots–these first media partners and I have remained friends (and we got a little better at the film/videomaking thingee…)

Video and film are collaborative adventures (as was graduate school).  While struggling to finish a dissertation, I was introduced to the history of public access and Paper Tiger Television. (You can make TV for free!)  That’s also when I first heard about Tom’s Media Burn adventures–starting with Ant Farm.  More on collaboration soon….