Monday, 9 May 2011

Why they fear Film Theory?

Originally Published in the Viewpoint

In the academic realm of blood stricken Pakistan, film studies have begun to emerge slowly. Partly because of the rising trend of private media (which proudly calls itself a ‘revolution’), partly because of the efforts of many old art academics and partly because of our film-going culture, film studies are becoming a part of our educational curriculum. The institutions offering film courses are usually equipped with latest high-definition equipment for production and post-production. They’ve got outstanding technicians to train students and many young kids – who can afford these film schools – are realizing that they wanted to become ‘directors since childhood’! Artistic ambiance, updates on latest technology, jargon – that’s all these ‘art’ schools offer. That results in film graduates who continue with family businesses afterwards. Others start looking for jobs in private sector. "There’s not much out there you know. So I’ll be studying Business Management now", conceded a fresh film graduate. 
What do you think is missing, that even after studying a medium for more than four years, the students can’t relate to that? Even if they do so, they come up with pretentious attempts of petty creativity. That’s because they’ve never been trained to see film as social practice! 
The most of these elitist institutions lack an essential and the most crucial aspect of film studies- the theory of film. In these schools, film theory is usually messed up with film history in general with a brief overview of its origins and important inventions. Speaking of history, we know how all the widely ‘accepted history’ continues the post-colonial and imperialist legacy. Likewise, the film ‘history’ starts from D.W. Griffith’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’ – an extremely racist American film of 1915 – and ends at ‘Pulp Fiction’ – a 1994 (again) American film romanticizing sex, drugs and violence, usually considered as a landmark of ‘pop-culture’ and ‘post-modernism’ which has become the globally appreciated tendency in arts since the official declaration of the ‘end of history.’

The question arises here that why on earth is academia so uneasy with film theory? The answer is simple. Film theory is closely affiliated with an ideology– which has been nastily opposed by all the advocates of traditionalist intelligentsia, religion, free-market and ‘liberal arts’ – the ideology of Marxism. It relates film to an element – academia has always been uncomfortable with– the question of class and it originated and developed in a land – historians are so biased about – the Soviet Union!

Logo of Mosfilm, Soviet Union, one of the oldest film companies in world

Film theory arose from the scientific and philosophical doctrine of Marxism. It is not a coincidence that the early and most important film theorists and filmmakers were active Marxists who emerged in the newly formed Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. They not merely saw film as a catalyst of social change, but also innovated highly avant-garde formal techniques. In the decade of 1920s, when film as medium was hardly 24 years old, the world started witnessing socially relevant, intellectually innovative and aesthetically rich films that shaped the future of the world cinema. Lenin declared cinema as "the most important of all art forms" and the world’s first ever film school was set up in Moscow. Lenin thought that cinema's role to communicate through imagery had an innately democratizing aspect, one crucial to the Soviet Union's numerous ethnicities and languages. These films were proletarian in content and realistic yet so experimental in form. The earlier Soviet cinema was the most avant-garde in the world and became a foundation of artistic modernism. Let’s just briefly look at the cinematic contributions of the three Soviet film theorists and directors, who agreed on the ideological role of film but were different in their approach towards form. Lev Kuleshov, whose "Keleshov efefct" emphasized the importance of film editing for the first time in cinema, by demonstrating how the interrelationship of shots affect the consciousness of viewers. His most precious contribution, more precisely, is known as Montage in filmmaking. In an article in 1917, Kuleshov wrote, "to make a picture the director must compose the separate filmed fragments, disordered and disjointed, into a single whole and juxtapose these separate fragments into a more advantageous, integral and rhythmical sequence, just as a child constructs a whole word or phrase from separate scattered blocks of letters." He concluded his theory of cinematic montage "Montage is to cinema what colour composition is to painting or a harmonic sequence of sounds is to music."
While Kuleshov believed in harmonizing the narrative and mis-en-scene by creating unification in shots, his contemporary Sergei Eisenstein differed and pioneered one of the most philosophical film theories ever, the Soviet Montage Theory. His idea of film editing was based on dialectical approach, that differed from the linear continuity editing style of the Western cinema. Unlike Kuleshov, he argued that images should "collide" rather than merely be "merged". Eisenstien introduced the Hegelian and Marxian concepts of Dialectics into the film form, where a shot (thesis) collide with another shot (anti-thesis) and form a new meaning (synthesis), an idea he borrowed from Marx that in any society the class oppression (thesis) collides with the oppressed workers (anti-thesis) resulting into revolution (synthesis). His dialectical approach can be seen in the Odessa Steps sequence of ‘The Battleship Potemkin – the most studied scene ever in film history – where the oppressed masses as thesis are shown in an intense parallel cutting with the Tsarist troops as anti-thesis. The ultimate synthesis is the consciousness and awakening of the spectators.

"The film drama is the Opium of the people…down with Bourgeois fairy-tale scenarios…long live life as it is!" said another radical film theorist and documentarian, Dziga Vertov, whose influences continue in documentary filmmaking in the form of techniques like cinema verite. Vertov theorized the primacy of the camera’s lens (the ‘Kino-Eye’) over the human eye. He clearly saw it as some kind of innocent machine that could record without bias or superfluous aesthetic considerations (as its human operator) the world as it really was. His theory and method emphasized the importance of realism. In the manifesto of his school of thought, known as Cine-Eye, he wrote,
"We invite you
From the sweet embraces of the romance,
From the poison of the psychological thriller,
From the clutches of the theatre of adultery,
Into the open, into the four dimensional space,
In search of our own material, metre and rhythm…"

And so the very material, metre and rhythm of the Soviet film theorists, that has inspired and shaped the medium of cinema owing to its strong theoretical but very social foundations, keep haunting the liberal art academics of our time who viciously use the mere term of ‘propaganda’ for the most creative spectrum of the 20th century.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Art in our times

Originally Published in the Viewpoint

An art exhibition was going on in a posh gallery of Lahore. Installation art was the medium and you could find strange ‘art objects’, hanging and placed, in all the dimensions of space. The gathering - filled with high class ‘intellectual socialites’ and art critics – was enough to represent a ‘positive image of Pakistan’. That positive yet so unrealistic image consisted of the postmodern works by many famous artists. While passing from one side of the gallery, I looked at an art piece. It was one and a half brick, placed on a tiny table with the artist’s name. I kept moving and found a blank canvas, hanging in the middle of a wall. A few art critics were trying to understand the “depth of white” from that blank canvas while others were satisfying their intellectual thirst by relating those bricks to the complications of “consciousness and unconsciousness”. At the end of the gallery, at one corner, a couple of multicolored electric wires were exhibited on the floor. I found that art piece the most interesting of all. I was still trying to figure out what that meant when all of a sudden a man – probably an electrician who was working there – came, grabbed the wires and went away! 

Art in our times has lost everything – content – form – meaning and purpose.

It has become a possession of a minority that has not only commodified its very social nature but also has destroyed its aesthetic beauty. This approach, however, has been viewed as the ‘next big thing’ in the philosophical premises of art and being highly praised by the West. One wonders, what’s the reason of promoting a meaningless generation of art in the name of intellect or, more precisely, postmodernism? Why is there a rising trend of obscure and pretentious creations that create a wedge between the intellectuals and the masses? This chaos, known as art, shows the philosophical and ideological conflicts of the 2oth century and their tragic consequences after the end of the cold war. This emerging craze of strictly meaningless art has its roots back in the political interests of the Western Imperialism. The advocates of ‘free-market’ who talk about ‘artistic freedom’ negate the social relevance of art, by limiting it to merely subjective and usually nihilistic themes if not completely meaningless. What on earth is that artistic freedom that rejects the objective truth? The philosophy behind such art is as perplexing as the art itself. Chomsky while criticizing the postmodern theorists said, “Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, even Foucault…write things that I also don’t understand but don’t hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me.”
The realism- phobia that started during the cold war era still exists in the capitalist West and its intellectual-allies throughout the world, including Pakistan. I remember how one of our ‘liberal’ art history teachers at NCA viciously declared social realism merely as a propaganda while romanticizing abstract expressionism as “the avant-garde” art form.

I feel it’s important here to discuss briefly the origin of this irrational fear of realism. In order to counter the ideologically strong, realistically significant and aesthetically appealing Socialist Realism of the Soviet Union, the CIA came up with a secret policy in the 1950s– known as ‘long leash’ – to promote that sheer nonsense known as abstract expressionism in order to prove the “intellectual freedom” of the US. Donald Jameson – a former CIA officer – conceded in an interview, “yes the agency saw Abstract Expressionism as an opportunity, and yes, it ran with it. It was recognised that Abstract Expressionism was the kind of art that made Socialist Realism look even more stylised and more rigid and confined than it was.”

The materialist analysis of history reveals that art has always been important to people, since its earliest beginnings from the dark caves of France to the present day. What’s the element that has kept those prehistoric cave paintings alive even after tens of thousands of years? Their ability of being understandable owing to their astonishing realism! This not only drives our attention to the fact that art’s initial beginnings were based on the representations of the actual world but also enforces the idea that art was meant for some social purposes. Do you think those prehistoric people would have gone that deeply, crawling into the inaccessible recesses of the dark caves to draw something for the sake of decoration? I highly doubt it. Such drawings were an important ritual among those hunter gatherer societies – a ritual they used to perform for the success of hunting animals for food! Thus, art started evolving as a social activity rather than an individual act.
With the division of labor and evolution of private property – that culminated in the division of mankind into classes, separating mental labor from manual labor and art from craft, the very basic character of art lost its social significance and became a commodity – a meaningless commodity whose nasty importance is based on its price like any other thing in a capitalist society. For example, Van Gogh, who died in extreme poverty, is amongst the most ‘valuable’ painters of the world whose paintings change hands at auctions for millions of dollars. If, somehow, his works go out of fashion tomorrow, these so-called art lovers would divest themselves just like the dealers get rid of the falling shares on the floor of the stock market.

Thus, art, in the “free world” we live in, has become the monopoly of the ruling classes which suits the basic nature of their exploitative system in two ways: a) it generates profit b) it keeps people in a state of confused contentment. That minority always use and abuse the role of art and culture for their own gluttonous interests. In The German Ideology, Marx and Engles explain, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force”.
Steel Workers. Stalin-era (1950). Painted by V.Malagis. Oil on Canvas

 Every sensible rational mind should understand that the cultural aspects of any society (superstructure) can not be fully understood when separated from the material economic conditions of that society (base). Every society is shaped by the relations of production and exchange (economics) that form its base. History’s most liberating event – the October Revolution – when the working-class played the most important role in striving for a society free of exploitation, alienation and oppression – started an era of undying art that was the outcome of the very basic philosophy their revolution was based on: Dialectical Materialism which has an inseparable relation with realism. The opposing forces of proletarian revolution saw their art - that reflected their liberation and motivated them to struggle - as one of their biggest enemies. But the artists, all over the world, who emerged after the revolution, were able to base themselves on a very rich and progressive tradition of Social and Socialist realism. Progressive Writers Movement is the Pakistani chapter of that internationalist movement of art.
"Women of the Kolkhoz," by an unknown Ukrainian artist
Consider a situation where entertainment no longer works as industries but only as activities necessary to human well-being. Art loses its exclusive and individual character under Socialism and becomes the ownership of all. It doesn’t only reflect the matter but plays its heroic role in changing that too. The masses, so long bound to submit in silence, find a new voice and witness a radical transition. An artist’s role is to fight for the economic emancipation of mankind to gain the lost soul of humanity. Art has played an important role since the birth of mankind and this role will not only continue but be greatly enhanced and glorified when art would become a cause to beautify life. That would be “humanity’s leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom” in the words of Engles. Diego Rivera, the Mexican Communist Muralist painter, concluded the aims of revolutionary art at the end of his Manifesto, which is the need of our times:
       “The independence of Art — for the Revolution.
                 The Revolution — for the complete liberation of Art!”

Monday, 2 May 2011

The roots of bloodshed

The chapter of Osama Bin Laden has been closed today. Celebrations are going on around the world.  Imperialists are excited to destroy someone they were so proud of once..Here's a piece that I wrote last year, attempting to explain the not so old love story of Imperialism and Islamic fundamentalism. -Ammar Aziz

 Originally Published in the Daily Times

The ongoing terrorist attacks in Pakistan reflect the dark consequences of our Islamic republic’s official support for imperialist causes in the 1980s. Every person who condemns this bloodshed is supposed to know and oppose its very roots. Ironically, all ‘Islamists’ and ‘liberals’, here and abroad, who oppose these fanatics now, keep ignoring the historical fact that they themselves had played a vital role in shaping and raising these terrorists who were then known as mujahideen. Our people are burning in the flames of that jihad — a feat that fanatics and their brainwashed followers are still proud of — which was started against the ‘kafir’ Soviet Union. The world faced a dramatic change at the end of the Cold War, after the dissolution of the USSR. Amidst much celebration by the imperialists, the Islamists and their massive supporters were left totally unaware of the consequences of that destruction for their future generations because of supporting imperialist agendas in the name of religion.

Things are not as abstract as they seem. It is a known fact that the mujahideen were completely funded, supported and trained by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Billions of dollars had been invested in supporting them against the Soviet Union. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were the closest allies of these mujahideen along with the US. One wonders what those imperialist interests were that had united all the western capitalist powers, Middle Eastern elites and religious clerics of the world against a single state. What was the Afghanistan of the 1980s that ended on a tragic note, whose fallout keeps affecting the lives of the common people today? Which was the party that began to change the destiny of common Afghans before those US-sponsored barbarians destroyed everything?

In 1978, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) — formed in 1965 — had completely overthrown the monarchy of the Shahs, leading towards a democratic change known as the ‘Saur Revolution’. It was seen as a bright change and the Soviet Union started helping the newly formed people’s republic by modernising the economy and in the construction of schools, hospitals and roads. From land reforms to the promulgation of new laws, the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan completely followed a socialist model. The PDPA banned many traditional feudal practices and introduced new laws to protect women’s rights, including the ban on ‘bride price’ and child marriages. Literacy programmes, for both men and women, were being set up, resulting in the involvement of Afghan women for the first time in all mainstream fields including politics. Anahita Ratebzad, one of the few Afghan women to become a medical doctor and a politician, wrote in a New Kabul Times editorial in May 1978: “Privileges which women, by right, must have are equal education, job security, health services and free time to rear a healthy generation for building the future of the country. Educating and enlightening women is now the subject of close government attention.” Anahita, an active Marxist, was a member of the PDPA.
Afghan Women in the 1980s during the Socialist regime in Afghanistan.

According to a research study, in 1988, 40 percent of doctors and 60 percent of teachers consisted of women in Afghanistan. In the same year, 440,000 female students were enrolled in educational institutions. These reforms, however, were not seen as a positive change but as an ‘atheistic agenda’ by a large number of conservative groups in Afghanistan and the rest of the Muslim world who started to organise militants against the socialist government. In 1979, the newly formed government repeatedly requested the neighbouring socialist Soviet Union to help them. It was supposed to be a peaceful involvement of the Soviets with a mere intention to provide security to the newly formed democratic state and to help them build socialism, but something else had been scripted by the imperialist powers and their Islamist puppets. Their direct involvement and support to religious militants created unrest, bloodshed and civil war for many years — and it still continues.

The US exploited the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan to give the Cold War a climax. The CIA started a programme, known as Operation Cyclone, to arm the mujahideen in every possible way. Here comes the most interesting and tragic part. Pakistan, under Zia’s regime, played the role of a protagonist in making that mission successful and started accepting aid in millions of dollars. The ISI continuously served imperialist powers and trained the militants and supplied them the weapons and funds. This imperialist-Islamist alliance led to countless deaths and destruction in Afghanistan. Brzezinski, the National Security Adviser of former US President Jimmy Carter, said in an interview: “That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Soviets into the Afghan trap. The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, ‘We now have the opportunity of giving to the Soviet Union its Vietnam War’.”

The western media kept romanticising the religious militants as ‘heroes fighting for humanity’. After fulfilling the imperialist interest of the defeat of the Soviet Union, the same ‘heroes’ became antagonists. One of those people and their closest ally — an Arab elitist — who later became a ‘celebrity’ terrorist named Osama bin Laden, said, “The credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union goes to God and the mujahideen in Afghanistan.”

What Pakistan faces today is the outcome of its pro-American policies from the very beginning in 1947 — when Pakistani officials decided to have ‘good terms’ with the US instead of the USSR — to its worst episode in the 1980s that started an era of never ending bloodshed. Sadly, a majority of Pakistanis, who are unaware of backstage imperialistic agendas oppose terrorism but still have some sympathy for the mujahideen. Meanwhile, there is another thinking, prevailing mostly amongst urban elitists, who oppose terrorism but see the US form of ‘democracy’ and the ‘free market’ as the solutions of these problems. It is the need of the time, for every sensible mind, to understand that only class struggle can bring us a peaceful future.