Mar 5, 2014

Waking Up Fed
Flaherty NYC, EAT!: A 60th Anniversary Feast
Program 3: “Devotional Cinema”

by Dan Finn

            Beginning on January 20th Flaherty NYC began a series of programmed events under the moniker of EAT!: A 60th Anniversary Feast. The series includes 6 programs occurring biweekly through March 31, 2014. The series is programmed by Jason Fox, who is a filmmaker, teacher, and graduate student. According to the Flaherty NYC website he recently finished his own documentary on “lingering legacies of the Phillipine – American War in the Phillipines.”[1] He has taught at Vassar and CUNY Hunter College, the latter where he is working on an MFA. He also is on the Board of Organization for Visual Progression, a group that partners with social justice organizations to teach visual media tools as an advocacy method.
            The overall arc of the series is to bring programs together featuring video, film, games, and augmented reality works together that all feature the use of food. The curatorial angle on these moments is to look at food as a metaphor for the globalization of culture. Also from the website, “In our current culinary moment, local politics and global policies are entering us through our mouths. EAT! offers a series of interventions on those moments when our bodies are at their most vulnerable, at the moments when consumption breaks down the boundaries between our selves and the world.”[2] Another curatorial decision for each program, as a nod to the Flaherty Seminar’s 60th anniversary, is to feature one work which Flaherty has screened previously in the last six decades.
            I attended the third program of the series, entitled “Devotional Cinema,” that took place on February 17, 2014 at Anthology Film Archives at 7pm. Featuring 8 short works by 4 makers, Fox’s description for this chapter of the series was as follows, “Ruminations and ruptures in Islam, dietary law, family, multi-national corporations, and other forms of devotion as the ties that bind, fragment, reconcile, and liberate the body and the social.”[3] The other programs in the series are entitled “Friends with Benefits,” “All that Glitter,” “Chop Suey: A Talk on the Work of Theresa Duncan,” “Waste, and Other Forms of Management,” and “Pot Luck: An Augmented Reality Walk.” All have or are scheduled to take place at Anthology Film Archive, and follow the same structure. Screening is followed by a panel discussion and Q&A with a guest or guests, and later there is wine and snacks with further informal discussion.
            The works screened at the program are as follows:

·         Different World (dir. Yasmin Ahmad, Malaysia, 1997, 2 minutes, digital file). “Commissioned by Petronas, this long-form commercial aired across Malaysia during a rare occasion when the Chinese New Year and the Islamic holiday, Eid Ul Fitr, coincided with one another. A Chinese boy is lured from his studies into the open air by the off-key tune of a Malay girl.  The boundaries between self and other dissolve as our protagonist and his lure explore the sensual pleasures of the abundant fruit on display.”[4]

·         The Tree (dir. Amir Muhammad, Malaysia, 2009, 3 minutes, streamed via[5]. “In this very short film, the director asks the Malaysian politician and spiritual leader, Tok Guru Nik Aziz, to explicate a short hadith from the Qu’ran.  From the director:  ‘The visual backdrop for most of it is Kota Bahru’s Pasar Siti Khatijah, a market run primarily by women, an interesting contrast to the more patriarchal image of Islam.  It’s really something short and simple. It’s probably the least ironic thing I have made — except for my cameo perhaps. It occurred to me that a hadith is actually like a short film; it can be seen as merely an anecdote, but can be teased out and expanded more if your heart is open to it. Or you can just say: ‘I don’t understand’ and get on with your life; that’s cool, too.’”

·         Chicken Soup (dir. Kenny Schneider (USA, 1970, 14 minutes, 16mm). “Follows the home preparation of kosher chicken soup, from the slaughter to the slurp, with a direct-cinema camera style that is at various times riveted and repulsed by what it captures.”

·         Chocolate (dir. Yasmin Ahmad, Malaysia, 2009, 3 minutes, streamed via “A short and not entirely sweet parable about the divide between the Malay and ethnic Chinese in contemporary Malaysia, centered around a small bar of chocolate.”

·         Pangyau (dir. Amir Muhammad, Malaysia, 2002, 13 minutes, digital file). “From the Director: ‘When I took a few Cantonese lessons, I remembered a friend who is no longer here.  Which is not to say he’s dead.’”

·         Friday (dir. Amir Muhammad, Malaysia, 2003, 8 minutes, digital file). “Sacred and profane thoughts during an afternoon at the National Mosque.”

·         The Diving Women of Jeju-Do (dir. Barbara Hammer, USA, 2007, 30 minutes, Betacam SP). “For hundreds of years, women have carried on a fishing tradition on the South Korean island of Jeju-do.  They dive without a breathing apparatus to collect sea urchins, octopus, shellfish, and seaweed.  These women live without health insurance, however, and they are more likely to sustain themselves with drugs and nutrient shots than they are with their daily catch.  The tradition is dying out as more and more women choose to avoid the arduous and uncertain form of work.”

·         Old Folks (dir. Yasmin Ahmad, Malaysia, 2007, 2 minutes, digital file). No description online, but it is another Petronas commercial, wherein 4 elderly Malaysian mothers brag about their sons while sharing a meal. The first three have successful, wealthy doctors and lawyers, but they live abroad. The last one says nothing of wealth or prestige, only that her son is always bothering her and taking her places, and then her son arrives and takes her on a trip with the family, and the other three mothers look on somewhat jealously.

Upon admission, audience members were handed paper programs. The programs contained the same information as provided in the event e-mails and online. This included the panelists, a short introduction to the program’s theme, the description of each work, information about each filmmaker, description of the programmer, background on the entire series including future programs, and background on Anthology. The showing was well attended, and began with brief introductions. The first was from a woman for Flaherty NYC, who introduced the programmer, Jason Fox, and encouraged the audience to stay for wine, chips, and discussion after the panel and Q&A. Fox’s introduction was also brief, explained that Barbara Hammer and Amir Muhammad would be with him on the panel, Muhammad joining the discussion via Skype from Malaysia, where it was very early in the morning. The screening began without much direction as to interpretation from Fox, which was left for the discussion. The screening took place in Anthology’s Maya Deren theater, and it provided sufficient space for the audience while maintaining a level of intimacy during the panel and Q&A.
Although Fox left the works to speak for themselves until the discussions afterwards, the program material allowed for certain thematic strains to coalesce during the screening. Having multiple selections from each of the Malaysian video-makers allowed their personal styles to become apparent. Ahmad’s was somewhat minimalist. Two were composed of images taken at one location (a marketplace in Pangyau and a popular mosque in Friday) accompanied by a single voice. In Pangyau a narrator speaks to his interaction with a Chinese friend in school. Ahmad mentioned in the discussion afterward that Malaysians periodically have cultural conflicts with the Chinese minority, and this notion is apparent in the narration of the tale. While there is no explicit connection between the scenes of the marketplace and the narration, the cultural tensions implicit in the narrative underscore recurring scenes of Chines and Malays sharing meals or eating cuisine from the respective nations. In Friday there is no voice, but a textual narrator, and the text offers some amusingly critical ideas on Islam and Malay practice of Islam which underscore the scenes around the mosque. Ahmad’s pieces are all commercials, and also all dealt with Malay and Chinese tensions with a level of sentimentality, which was directed at lowering these borders.
In the context of the series’ theme, each film spoke to culture either directly or indirectly through food imagery and themes. Chicken Soup featured an older Jewish couple preparing soup; the husband kills the chicken at the beginning, and then the wife prepares it. In Chocolate an adolescent Chinese shop owner tends to an adolescent Malay customer. The shop owner’s mother yells at him in Chinese about not taking too long on the Malay, who wants to purchase a chocolate bar in addition to other goods but hasn’t enough money. In Different World Ahmad uses another pair of adolescents, one Malay and one Chinese, and this time they go together trying different fruits at a market, the act having sensual as well as cultural overtones. The other works shown did not feature food as centrally, but it was noticeable and one could not help but notice them given the series’ title and the accompanying program literature. For instance, Hammer’s piece centered on a declining trade on an island in Korea, and did not deal directly with food. Yet many powerful scenes show Hammer interacting directly with the women she documents, and this often centered on food; the preparation of a meal, or one woman thanking Hammer for giving them money to buy food.
Once the screenings completed, Barbara Hammer was invited to a seat in front of the audience next to Fox, and the audience waited for the Skype connection with Muhammad. The image from the Skype call was projected onto the screen at full size. This led to a humorous appearance in the panel; two relatively small present panelists below the massive head of the third. The discussion was informal, and the panel portion lasted briefly to make room for audience questions. Most of the panel portion, prior to Q&A, dealt with the filmmakers’ works and general style. Muhammad spoke to Ahmad’s films, as they were acquainted before she passed in 2009. His comments here revealed that during her life she was viewed as overly sentimental, but now she is gaining in popularity and acclaim. In Muhammad’s opinion, one reason for this change is that Malaysia is at a point where tensions are rising between Malays and the Chinese minority, giving the sentimentality in her films a new depth in many ways.
One sign of success for the program was that the Q&A session was active, signaling an engaged audience. While it seemed most of the audience were regulars for Flaherty events, there was also a small segment of Malaysian students there. This led to one very interesting connection during the Q&A. A Malay woman in NYC attending Hofstra University for documentary filmmaking addressed a question to Muhammad. Before posing the question outright she mentioned she was a giant fan of his, and that he was a big part of why she was in NYC attending school for documentary filmmaking. This event in itself rhymed beautifully with some of the notions expressed in the curatorial bent of the overall series. As the series attempts to investigate global culture and media interaction, here we had a number of layers for each. The Q&A created a connection that was at once local to two Malaysian filmmakers, but took place internationally over a relatively new medium, Skype.
 Another way the Skype call seemed to interact with the series was perhaps unintentional, but provocative nonetheless. It appeared clear to me that given the bizarre sight of the panel, with one member Skyped-in, that Anthology, as a traditionally film and video oriented venue, was not accustomed to such a use of its space. Muhammad was at once unaware of how massively visible he was to the audience, and not able to see the audience at all (instead he saw the darkness of the projection booth in which the computer was located). Due to this, while Hammer would speak at length he would sometimes do other things, such as check e-mail or surf the internet, which he must have imagined being less intensely obvious as it was for the audience. In a way that is hard for me to articulate the sort of mini-fissures between Muhammad and those present spoke to the ways that Internet media makes the world more connected but disconnected at the same time. The processes used to negotiate the shrinking world and the dissonances that arise seem to me an important part of what is being explored by the series.
Muhammad disconnected before the informal wine and chips portion, for obvious reasons, but this portion was equally important to the series. As a group of programs focusing on discussions of cultural interaction around food, here is the audience discussing its response to the films while consuming food together. It adds a layer of meaning to a commonplace element of programming and curation. Hammer was very welcoming to anyone curious to ask a question, although there were clearly a number of attendees with which she was well acquainted. After one or two glasses each, the people who had stayed for this portion began to go home, and the night had ended.
The only available account of the evening was posted on the program site itself. It does not seek to interpret the evening but instead provides a well detailed account of the discussion section.
In general, I believe the screening was a curatorial success. The elements within the structure of the night itself as well as the works screened spoke to the curatorial ideas present in the literature surrounding the series. While Fox did not spend much time explicitly arguing how the night had to deal with the series’ theme on food and global culture, the event was able to do so quite well on its own, and given the attendance during the films, the panel, and the informal discussion over wine, the audience was also thoroughly convinced that the evening had a lot to say for itself.

[1] Flaherty NYC, “Winter/Spring 2014 Flaherty NYC,”, accessed 2/27/2014.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Flaherty NYC, “Program 3: Devotional Cinema,”, accessed 2/27/2014.
[4] This and the descriptions that follow come from the program notes and can be found online, Flaherty NYC, “Program 3: Devotional Cinema,”, accessed 2/27/2014.
[5] 15Malaysia, “Films,”, accessed 2/27/2014.

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