World Records Journal presents “English is Spoken Here/ English is Broken Here”

World-Records-VOL-1-005

 

 

 

 

English is Spoken Here/ English is Broken Here:
a conversation about film and language

With Lynne Sachs (initiator), Jeanne Finley, Christopher Harris, Sky Hopinka, and Naeem Mohaiemen

Published in Fall 2018
World Records Journal  Vol. II “Ways of Organizing”
https://vols.worldrecordsjournal.org/#/02/02

Note:  Journal version includes streaming videos and PDF for download

Edited by Jason Fox and Laliv Melamed

Lynne Sachs: Let us begin with the statement “English is spoken here.” I’ve been thinking about what the implications of this pronouncement might be in terms of an anchoring of a singular language and the drowning of others. So, with the encouragement of World Records, I decided to invite the four of you to discuss and complicate English’s ascendancy worldwide. In both subtle and overt ways, each of you has explored the impact and resonance of this dramatic shift in your own work. With this in mind, I want to ask all of you why and how English has become the lingua franca of our chosen medium and our practice. We are all moving image makers and, generally speaking, what bonds us together is our choice as art practitioners not to engage with the mainstream paradigm for making and distributing our time-based work. Our work circulates outside of industrial networks; and yet, the fact that we have chosen to use the English language as our primary mode of communication and route of circulation (even here!) places us squarely within the established order.  And, to extend the question, I would also encourage all of us to ask ourselves how we might swap out the word “English” for other words, like “narrative,” “state,” or “culture.”

 

Sky Hopinka: There’s something that really doesn’t sit right with me regarding the suggestion that English is the lingua franca of our chosen medium. I don’t know what exactly, but I’ll touch back on it later.

 

Naeem Mohaiemen: Maybe the title of Coco Fusco’s 1995 book English is Broken Here is more relevant to where we are now. {1}

 

Lynne: I like the intimations of the statement “English is broken here,” especially if it suggests that the act of breaking is an intentional one and not a flaw. Fusco’s book was written about twenty years ago in the full blush of multiculturalism. It’s not that I want to romanticize those times either.  Some artists felt liberated by the new set of cultural “rules,” others constrained, even punished. Now, as the years have passed, I wonder how successful that divine impulse has really been.

 

Naeem: Fusco’s book was one of the first works to parse projects such as Robert Flaherty’s 1922 compelling of his subjects to stage “traditional rituals” on camera. This “reality” of the so-called other is based on Western documentary’s obsession with “discovering” the negation of itself in something that was distinct and “authentically” different. So, to have a body of experience that is initially framed by your (as in Nanook’s) own context, and then to be forced to work within a Euro-American context where those experiences are always othered is to be always performing that difference in front of, and behind, the camera—even if this does not always interest you, or certainly is not always productive for the project.

 

Lynne: Then in our shared journey as “reality explorers” armed with cameras, do all roads lead us back to Nanook? If so, should we create a chronological schematic that starts with B.N.N. (pre-1922) and P.N.N. (post-1922) and go from there? It is very clear that the rhetoric of this then new form of cinema was structured around English as a form of communication and education, but I would also note that there is still something radical going on here: Flaherty’s camera compels us to listen with our eyes and to take note of Allakariallak (Nanook’s actual name) and his family’s mode of being. We can still imagine the aural dimensions of their language without replacing it with our own native tongue.  The seductiveness of Nanook itself (or dare I say himself) stems from its power to “negate itself” or even him. Nanook is a participant in what I would call a “silenced” film. There is no aural experience for us of his Inuit language. He is silenced. You and Peter both maintain your own volition, but in the end, you as the director choose English.

 

Naeem: As Erik Barnouw points out, Flaherty’s focus was “authenticity of result,” so the means to get there (for example, shearing away half an igloo to get a well-lit shot) did not disturb him.{2} But what of the damage done to the story of those whose stories he/you/we continue to claim as makers?

 

Lynne: Naeem, do you think that Flaherty was guiding his cast toward the creation of a language of “the other” that was mimetic (of his own American culture somehow) rather than authentic? Might you or any of the rest of us ever have done this in our own practice—unintentionally privileging a project’s need to be articulate, aesthetic, or polished?

 

Naeem: When I first approached Dutch scholar and activist Peter Custers in 2011 (for Last Man in Dhaka Central, completed in 2015), his wish to speak to me only in Bengali/Bangla was driven by his idea of what would be the fundamental bond between us within the film. I knew that I wanted him to talk in depth about the theoretical and tactical debates the underground Left (Moscow, Peking, etc. tendencies) was waging in Bangladesh. And that was a conversation that needed to happen in English, a language in which Peter did most of his writing, on Rosa Luxemburg or Kazi Nazrul Islam. I think there was a disconnect there, between what language people may have felt we “should” talk in and which one we do talk in. There is a scene on the train when I compliment him on his Bangla reading and he replies that he feels fluent in “political literature” but not everything else—I suppose he meant high-form literature. I wanted to get into the nitty-gritty of the Left debates of that time, which I felt would not flow in Bangla because his skills were commendable but not first language fluent. Over the course of three years I did not want to keep talking in broken Bangla.  On the last day of the shoot, he noted, “But you have not heard me speaking in Bangla on camera.” So at his request, he read out a poem written by Khorshed Bhai. The film bent to his gentle will in the end. I always say that film had two directors, myself and Peter.

 

Lynne: I recently saw the film In Time to Come (2017) by Singaporean filmmaker Tan Pin Pin. In her film, Tan bears witness to the transformation of her multicultural, Chinese-speaking country into an English-only nation where it appears that the most basic class divisions are designated by one’s ability to speak a foreign tongue. Tan Pin Pin asks her audience this question: “How can true connection take place when so much has been pre-shaped and destroyed by a government that’s only looking out for its own interests?” Tan is a maker who continues to live, speak, and make work in a country where her own language is being systematically decimated. Considering her explicit critique of her own country’s agenda, it seems fortuitous that she has enough creative agency to address this erasure in her films.

 

Jeanne Finley: I have often employed contested language to explore how individuals can be shaped by the social and cultural institutions of family, religion, and the state, yet remain in conflict with the identities ascribed to them by these institutions. Tan Pin Pin’s questioning in her film suggests that prescribed state structures are bound by language. Perhaps work that seeks to dismantle the yoke of state-controlled language might have a shot at creating true connections. The first thought that came to mind when considering these questions of broken/spoken English was the 1979 song, “Broken English” by Marianne Faithfull. Faithfull was inspired to write the song after reading a garbled subtitle, “broken English…spoken English” while watching a documentary on Ulrike Meinhof, a co-founder of the communist terrorist group Baader-Meinhof Gang later dubbed Hitler’s Children. The song feels prescient in today’s world where a middle ground between extreme ideologies is becoming increasingly rare.

 

Lynne: Do you think that English standing in for stability, and for a particular world order, is what is being challenged?

 

Jeanne: Preciscely. With the disaster that had unfolded in Southeast Asia, (American) English—the language of Democracy—as the primary post WWII stabilizing force has started to falter, and Faithfull gets to the heart of that sentiment in this song. I followed just that thought to Youtube (1) and there she is in a short-sleeved pink pantsuit, the scar slashed across her left cheek, the camera tracking slowly towards her from a wide shot to a close-up while lights pan the stage where she stands singing in her permanently cracked, low-pitched voice, imploring us to say it all in broken English:

 

It’s just an old war

Not even a cold war

Don’t say it in Russian

Don’t say it in German

Say it in broken English

Say it in broken English

 

 

Naeem: Do you think the only languages she could imagine at that time were German, Russian, or English? This speaks volumes about the blinders of what people thought was the operations stage of the Cold War.

 

Jeanne: I am less likely to think this is a lack of imagination. Rather, her language choice is reference-specific to the fissure running through the heart of Europe, metaphorized as an Iron Curtain splitting the continent in two.

 

Lynne: And with the hindsight that time offers, what do you think a singer-songwriter like Marianne Faithfull is trying to say about the relationship of language to the Cold War?

 

Jeanne: While living in Eastern Europe during the collapse of communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall, I was utterly stunned by the rapidity with which an entire state system was dismantled.  Communist rhetoric had led me to believe that the state held absolute power over the Soviet satellite nations. However, Václav Havel, the dissident, underground Czech playwright who became president in 1989, made the argument that while resistance may seem futile, it is not. In “The Politics of Hope,” he insists that although those who strive to use language to combat the assault on truth might appear weak in the face of Goliath, each stab into the opposition weakens the oppressor.{3} He made this claim as he staged his plays in the basement of his Prague apartment and was repeatedly jailed for it. But still, he managed to get his writing out to the West and translated into English so it could be distributed worldwide, amplifying his voice. We watched as the groundwork his writing created helped weaken an oppressive, Moscow-controlled, communist dictatorship.

 

Christopher Harris: In 1972, the great composer, arranger, bandleader, and pianist Sun Ra recorded an original composition “It’s After the End of the World” with his Intergalactic Myth Science Solar Arkestra. The song begins with vocalist June Tyson leading the Arkestra as they repeatedly chant, “It’s after the end of the world, don’t you know that yet?” (2)  In the Anglophone western hemisphere, “English is spoken here,” after the end of the world. That is, for the descendants of Africans in the so-called New World, English is the language of the post-apocalypse, provided, of course, that the Middle Passage is properly understood as a profound rupture, a world-ending disaster for those who made the voyage as cargo. Jeanne, these lyrics in Faithfull’s “Broken English” are relevant here:

 

Lose your father, your husband

Your mother, your children

What are you dying for?

It’s not my reality

 

Counting the suicides and survivors, 13.4 to 16 million fathers, husbands, mothers, and children were taken by the abyss of the Middle Passage. Along the way and continuing for centuries after throughout the Americas, native tongues (not to mention belief systems) were violently suppressed if not nearly altogether erased in the attempt to transform Africans into farm implements.

 

Lynne: So, as I see it, both of you, Chris and Jeanne, are thinking about music’s response to power.

Music doesn’t have to play by the rules in the same way that a spoken language does. Are there other zones where you find this to be true?

 

Chris: Clearly, Black people in the United States have a vexed relationship to English, as evidenced in part by half remembered debates about Ebonics and the mocking, wildly exaggerated, stylized speech patterns of minstrels that persists even today in the cadence of certain white hipsters.

 

For many, Black English is a sign of cultural deficit, a flaw in the body politic of a Black nation that is offered as evidence of an inferior caste deserving of arrest, defunded schools, environmental racism, summary executions by police, and all manner of further depredations. English is spoken here, after the end of the world, after the end of the universe. Black English, Black speech, however, is spoken in the hereafter, in the abyss. Black speech is spoken through, beyond, and outside of English, outside of words. It’s spoken through the movement of Black bodies, the motion of Black music, the fragmented objects and off-kilter spaces of urban landscapes before the erasure of gentrification is complete. If one knows how to listen, one hears it in the glossolalia, the slurred, bent, broken notes, and split voicings saying things that English was never intended to express, things that English was supposed to suppress. Bebop is spoken here. (3) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u7slr02RsdY  In “Repetition as a Figure of Black Culture,” James A. Snead argues that Black culture confronts “accident and rupture not by covering them over but by making room for them inside the system itself.” Snead explains that, if there is a goal in Black music, dance, and language:

 

… it is always deferred; it continually “cuts” back to the

start, in the musical meaning of “cut” as an abrupt, seemingly

unmotivated break… with a series in progress and a willed

return to a prior series. …The ensuing rupture does not cause

dissolution of the rhythm; quite to the contrary, it strengthens

it, given that it is already incorporated into the format of that

rhythm.{4}

 

By incorporating rupture as a constituent element in this way, Black culture transforms disaster into a generative force. I am directly inspired by this embrace of rupture and I attempt to exploit the expressive potential of disjunction in my own practice as a filmmaker. For example, my film still/here (2001) is about sites of disaster and rupture, the ruins in North St. Louis where the city’s Black population live. The film is structured around a fundamental antagonism between image and sound occasioned by these ruins. Image and sound occupy the same space but at different times. One is the past of the other, or perhaps one is the premonition of the other. They can’t be fixed in relation to one another but in that very antagonism is all of the meaning in the film. It is a film that is fundamentally at odds within itself. The rupture between sound and image is the constituent element of the film. The film is, in a sense, double-voiced. I want my films to speak to and through rupture, to resist the way monoculture, in the parlance of Black vernacular speech, talks out of the side of its neck when it isn’t talking out of its ass. In that regard, there’s often a great deal of tension between the work of Black cultural producers and the established venues that exhibit and fund such work, not to mention the tension between that work and the way the critical establishment receives it. We see this tension in the presumption that Black art is separate from experimental or avant-garde art. This tension, indeed, this contradiction, is inevitable because the work is produced from within a culture of settler colonialism, genocide, slavery, and racial capitalism that, in the words of the current President, “tamed a continent.” So, when my work goes out into the world, it is subject to these sorts of presumptions, that is, that it has to be tamed, domesticated within the politesse of established cultural apparatuses. For me the question becomes, “who is implicated?” I want, more and more, for my work to implicate, to do the work of incivility. Might that alienate those institutions on which it relies? Perhaps. I’m ready to test that possibility. (4)

 

Sky: I don’t know if English is broken, here or elsewhere. Lynne, you proposed an idea to transpose a different word for “English” and I’ve been thinking about what that could be. “Dialect” offers something specific, as does lingua franca, but it feels like what is being pointed at is the utility of this wide range of language systems that we call English.

 

Naeem:  I want to pick up on Sky’s use of “utility” (which I presume he meant critically) and add “forced” to it. There are all sorts of ways that English dominates because of the presumed efficiency it brings to human exchanges. This focus on utility imposes an unimaginative universalism.

 

Lynne:  One might think of Ogden and Richards’s idealistic but ultimately reductive 1923 proposal for a B.A.S.I.C. language that would simplify global communication.{5}

 

Naeem: At a recent “Asian Curatorial Forum” conference organized by the Bengal Foundation in Dhaka, the Chinese curator had a translator with him. It meant that presentations went into double-time, because first he would make a lengthy point, then the interpreter would translate, then someone would ask a clarifying question. I was thinking that this is what it’s actually like trying to communicate across borders—the presumed utility of English vanishes these difficulties.

 

Sky: I get your point, but what I’m referring to specifically is the dialects of English that have sprouted out of that colonization.

 

Lynne: Are you saying, Sky, that English in whatever new form it is expressed, can actually be of use to those who do not claim to own it but rather to embrace it in their own inventive ways.

 

Sky: Speaking to my own experience, I’m referencing specifically North American dialects, such as Reservation dialects, Black Vernacular English, various creoles and pidgins that have developed over the years. I won’t look at these communities as victims of a broken system, but rather as groups of people that have adapted and shaped this language for their own purposes, survival, representations of culture in spite of those colonial acts. How they are speaking “English” in spite of those oppressive claims that it’s not “good English.”

 

Naeem: I think of the place of English, on page or screen, alongside all the languages it is crowding out, constantly. I feel it acutely because English has, by now, colonized a large part of my thinking. In 1972, newly independent Bangladesh imposed a post-independence “shorbosthore Bangla/Everywhere Bengali” policy. This meant English has never developed as a primary, or even significant language of discourse in Bangladesh. That is changing under pressure from English language publishers. But the change is tiny, and one need only contrast the impact of a newspaper op-ed written in English in the Daily Star and one written in Bengali in Prothom Alo. Since these are sister publications, we can presume they have similar infrastructure—yet the Bengali newspapers’ circulation dwarfs that of any English newspaper. Travel outside of Dhaka, and you will rarely see an English-language newspaper lying around in a tea stall, restaurant, or any other public venue.

 

Lynne:  So your critique does not fall with the more mainstream newspapers that convey the daily stream of events to the general public but rather with the art world in Bangladesh? Is it the art world then that is sacrificing the integrity of the Bengali language and culture in order to move with more viability into the  global conversation? I am interested in the way that both you and Chris are analyzing the dissemination of your own work in the art world vis-à-vis your own appropriation of a standard English idiom.

 

Naeem: The hegemony of English as an international art language has reinforced a Biennial-Art Fair-Museum arc that orbits around established centers of power. Attempts to enter this so-called “globalized” space has produced stylish English-language art magazines. But are enough Bengali people actually reading or thinking in this language? Why aren’t there more Bengali language art journals with the funding, marketing, and visibility of the English publications? Most of my projects are also in English. I know that being in English limits who can see it in Bangladesh; but it does not necessarily widen who will see it elsewhere. After all, there could always been subtitles.

 

Sky: I can’t think of English as the philological manifestation of the oppressor. I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine while we were working on a language revitalization project for a tribe in the Pacific Northwest, and she said that English is the enemy—in English. It was both funny and tragic—that the only way we can express our oppression was through this language.  But her dialect of English was different from mine. Her accent told me something about who she is and where she’s been. If I continually thought about how my use of English is representative of my oppression, I’d feel stressed to the point of exhaustion and give up. While the attitude that being a monoglot is preferable is a very American idea, and the inherent racism and classism amongst American dialects of English is pervasive, there still exists a wide range of vernaculars, tongues, and talks of this Germanic Creole that are full of resistances and sparks of identity that should be given permission to be accepted. Or don’t, because who needs permission to be who you are and speak the way you speak?

 

Naeem: Permission not needed to speak as you do, but it is ok also to parse why and how our preferences develop. For many artists, weirdness and not-fitting-in has been the first thing to be leached away by the broadening of an audience. Sometimes one way of being outside the parameters is not to speak in English, and that position is often the first to fall away as international circulation arrives. For those who do not read the language, I repeat here the slogan we often use after each catastrophic event in Bangladesh history: Keep calm and learn Bengali. [6]

 

Jeanne: Naeem’s suggestion that, sometimes, a way of claiming one’s position outside of the hegemony of what is thought of as traditional social norms is to speak in a language other than English, can also be considered in the inverse—that the manipulation of the English language can be used by those in power to dull meaning and keep the public uninformed and thus on the outside.  Media scholar Edward S. Herman demonstrates how the government and mass media manipulate words to make us accept the unacceptable.{6} The use of language/propaganda as a means to obscure meaning rather than to clarify has always been a part of political discourse, and the romantic idea that there once was an era of truth that has now been lost is not useful. However, the mechanics of language manipulation are specific to the constantly evolving communication technologies. What is compelling for me as an artist is to use the deconstruction of incoherent language as a means to build new and more equitable options.

 

Lynne: Jeanne, you’ve been looking at this disparity in language between clarity and an intentional, manipulative warping of meaning in your own work for a long time. Can you tell us about that?

 

Jeanne: In the 1990s, I made a film titled Involuntary Conversion. Its premise was simple. I gathered as many examples of doublespeak that I could find in the printed and broadcast media. For example:

 

Involuntary conversion with the ground = a plane crash

A catastrophic misadventure of a high magnitude = amputation of the wrong limb

 

At the time I was traveling frequently, and I shot footage from Japan to Bulgaria, as well as in the USA, that captured these examples of the disparity between language and meaning. I wrote a narrative script utilizing all the doublespeak words and phrases I could find and recorded a voice-over that begins, “These are the days of permanent pre-hostility” (peace), and meditates on the relationship between language, meaning, and social decay. The translations of the doublespeak, “peace,” appear over the footage as text. (5)  My 2017 film Book Report (co-created with John Muse) is an extension of this investigation in our current era of misinformation and post-truth that acknowledges the changing methodologies of disseminating misinformation. In Book Report, we focus, in part, on Twitter language, and its accompanying overuse of the air quote—that ironic gesture of two hands reaching up to face height, with forefinger and middle finger extending up from the fist and clawing back down twice in quick succession, or as punctuation, taking up two characters out of 140 in a tweet, to imply we aren’t serious, that sarcasm rules over earnestness, and nothing means what it seems. The air quote, along with all caps, destabilizes the ability of language to impart meaning and eliminates the author’s responsibility for what they are saying. As author and journalist Moises Velasquez-Manoff states, it weaponizes irony.{7} We hope for language to clarify, to offer the revelation of meaning through its very complexity. Yet the weaponization of language is most forceful when it is blunt, simple and asks nothing of the reader. Many non-fiction/experimental filmmakers insist on complexity as a means to disarm the weaponization of language that incessantly fire at us in today’s social media and internet platforms.

 

Lynne: Could these Cold War issues be generational?

 

Jeanne: Absolutely. My parents were in their very late thirties when I was born and every adult on both sides of my family participated in WWII. My mother served on an Army Red Cross ship and participated in numerous missions including liberating the concentration camps. When I was a resident at the Camargo Foundation, I realized as I gazed out to the Mediterranean Sea just east of Marseille, that she had been on a Red Cross ship, exactly where I was staring, during the invasion of Southern France. I created a site-specific projection installation from interviews with her about that mission. So the specifics of my familiarity with language propaganda and Cold War ideology is rooted in my generation.

 

Naeem: Has everyone seen Sam Green’s film The Universal Language (2011)(hyperlink: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BjxLej9QHXo), which  traces the history of Esperanto, the artificial language that was created in the late 1800s by a Polish eye doctor who thought that if everyone in the world spoke a common tongue, humanity could overcome racism and war. “Esperanto” means “one who hopes.” Hope died twice for that community, once after 1914 and then again after 1939. When I found out Sam was working on Esperanto—precisely when I was struggling with the position and valence of English in my work—it felt as if he was moving toward a solution to same problem.

 

Lynne: What exactly were the problems around language that you were facing?

 

Naeem: Most of my films have a script that starts in bits of Bangla and English. Eventually though, the whole script converges toward English. There are many reasons for this, not always well thought out. One is that I liked the idea of the audience being able to close their eyes and just listen for periods, as in United Red Army (2011) where a majority of the film is in the dark. So, using English became a way to do that. Another is the temperature of English, how it feels as a language for me. I can move to modes of irony and distance in English. I cannot do the same in Bengali. The way I feel about my first language (as opposed to my acquired language) is more of a warmth. I am tremendously troubled by this. There are bits of Bengali in all my films, but never a whole film in that language. So, when Sam started researching Esperanto, when his film was completed, it offered a way to think about the language-heart link. Esperanto came from an activist heart, a very different impulse. (6)

 

 

Sky: What was standard twenty years ago is different now, maybe in small ways, maybe the overall accent or pronunciation here or there, or the meaning of a word has changed, whatever it is – it’s different. That’s where I’m optimistic—not only because I must be – but because that’s where the utility of this language comes in. If the purpose of language is to communicate the needs of your existence to another then the place we exist in today offers much versatility for the acceptance of the words we choose and use to describe who we are and what we need. Twenty years ago, I was a Native American. Today I’m Indigenous. There are nuances behind those terms that offer a lot of avenues to go down, about the specificity of identity. Maybe not enough, but that’s the point.  Perhaps I’m being too optimistic—a lot of vile things have been said in English throughout the Anglo colonization of the world. Maybe what’s broken now is General American English. I haven’t read the Fusco book—I eventually will—but allowances for those specificities will only allow our understanding of the languages of English we speak to have a place of respect and not derision.

 

*note* Since writing this earlier this morning I’ve gone back and forth a lot about what I meant and changed my mind a dozen times and thought more about how to approach this idea of “English is spoken here” or even “English is broken here.” Another part of that idea is questioning or defining where “here” is. Is it in the academic discourse surrounding representational media? Is it in the personal scopes of identity that are as diverse as they are infinite? Is it in the political/social/economic/cultural localities of strife? No clue.

 

Uncle Adrian…

Here I am in the reservation of my mind

and silence settles forever

the vacancy of this cheap city room.

In the wine darkness my cigarette coal

tints my face with Wovoka’s shade

and I’m in the dry hills with a Winchester

waiting to shoot the lean, learned fools

who taught me to live-think in English.{8}

 

I also have no clue how relevant this quote is from Adrian C. Louis, a member of the Lovelock Paiute Tribe, who wrote the poem “Elegy for a Forgotten Oldsmobile,” but those last two lines of the stanza, “waiting to shoot the lean, learned fools / who taught me to live-think in English” have always stuck with me for their violence, heartbreak, irony, and tilted resignation. Adrian’s poetry never shows up in my work explicitly, but the influence it’s had on me shows up in other forms. Even thinking through the representation of the poet Diane Burns’s work in I’ll Remember You as You Were, not as What You’ll Become (2016). Those pairings of texts are ways to try and express something inherently inexpressible. (7)

 

Lynne: “Elegy for a Forgotten Oldsmobile” is such a vivid poem of anguish and awareness. It makes me think about the way we are all pushed to make films that can be understood, at least in terms of language. Beginning with my film Which Way is East: Notebooks from Vietnam (1994), I had to grapple with the presumption, which so many filmmakers have, that in order for language to be appreciated in its totality it must be translated into the dominant language (and historically the language of the oppressor in Vietnam), in our case English. In this film, I included a variety of Vietnamese parables, delivered to the audience as either on-screen text or aurally on the dialogue track.

 

This parable comes at the beginning of the film, for example: (8)

 

A frog that sits at the bottom of a well thinks that the whole sky is only as big as the lid of a pot.

 

As I was making the film, it occurred to me that the meaning of a parable seems so obvious to someone who comes from the culture from which it originated, but that it may remain quite opaque—like poetry, in the best of ways!—to a person who lives outside that society. During the step-by-step challenge of creating the subtitles for the film, I came to realize that translation might not necessarily be a pro forma gesture, but rather has the potential to complicate the initial experience of travel as a step in the production process and editing as a task that is connected to the return to home. I began to imagine a disrupted delivery of “information” where I would use an easy translation of a parable, then an un-translated parable, then the sound of my sister Dana (an American) struggling to speak the Vietnamese words in the parable with her tutor; the variation on the theme unraveled in various iterations throughout the entire film. In this way, I encouraged my English-speaking audience to listen more carefully to the sound of a language they do not speak, to know what it is to be outside and perhaps alienated from a culture that is not their own. I played with this strategy again in my Walter Benjamin-inspired short essay film The Task of the Translator (2010) where I conducted a series of language experiments. In one section, my camera witnesses a group of Latin scholars confronted with the haunting yet whimsical task of translating from English to Latin a New York Times article on the burial rituals of an Iraqi woman tasked with the cleaning of a suicide bombing victim. At the 2018 Flaherty Film Seminar, I saw your 2015 Venite et Loquamur, Sky,  in which a group of Latin students and teachers gather for an immersive week-long, Latin-only retreat. Clearly, there is something very seductive for both of us about a seemingly moribund language, a language that exists outside the parameters of utility, taking flight anew. (9)

More recently, in The Washing Society (2018), I include sections in which un-translated Chinese and Spanish voice-overs (based on interviews with immigrant washer-women) are woven together. My co-director Lizzie Olesker and I hoped these two intertwined languages could convey both frustration and revelation through their timbre rather than their meaning. (10)

 

Chris: I did something similar in my film Distant Shores (2016) where a woman speaks English in voice-over but the same woman is also heard speaking in untranslated Arabic through what seems to be a loudspeaker located somewhere within the imagined diegesis of the film. The refusal of translation into English is a deliberate, perhaps tiny, gesture as a little present to Arabic/English speakers in the hope that they have a different, perhaps fuller, viewing experience than the viewer who doesn’t speak Arabic. (11)  Speech is something that a body does and bodies speak body language. Maybe bodies speak English as in “putting English on it.”{9} Be that as it may, thinking in terms of speaking bodies, bodies that speak and body language makes me think of Harvey Young’s Still Standing, where he writes about black captives in South Carolina.{10} Thinking about Black body language in this context, it seems clear that this history of enforced stillness continues to inform the way Black bodies are rendered mute today, confined within the holding cells of the prison-industrial complex and lying dead in the middle of a Ferguson, Mo. street for four hours. The muteness of Black bodies is implicated in the way English is spoken here.

 

Lynne: Chris, when you wrote “I think about the body because speech is something that a body does and bodies speak body language,” I thought about Roland Barthes writing about a French soldier in Korea who realizes that his own writing has somehow become assertive.  This kind of embarrassment started, for him, very early; he strives to master it—for otherwise he would have to stop writing— by reminding himself that it is language which is assertive, not he. An absurd remedy, everyone would surely agree, to add to each sentence some little phrase of uncertainty, as if anything that came out of language could make language tremble. By much the same sense, he imagines, each time he writes something, that he will hurt one of his friends….{11}

 

Jeanne: Barthes’s soldier becomes aware that his discomfort was generated by the sense of language producing a double discourse. He knows the aim is not truth but suggests that perhaps adding a sentence of uncertainty can bring us closer to understanding the assertiveness of language. His dilemma is remarkably similar to the one we face today:  how do we live with the subjectiveness of truth as we ground ourselves in the pursuit of understanding of what takes place around us and the reality of how it affects individual lives. In this era where nothing we read or see can be confidently believed, how can filmmakers, photographers, journalists, and philosophers examine the notion and value of truth in cultural production?  One current unfolding method of documentary investigation utilizes the cinematic power of non-fiction staging to make evident the relationship between fact and fiction within our information culture. The questions of who is speaking, what language, and under what direction, is made through multiple layers in the construction of the film itself, moving deeper into the question of truth than is possible through the self-reflectivity of the filmmaker.

 

Lynne:  Are you claiming that a hybrid form of filmmaking formulates an implicit question of each and every traditional genre—from the personal documentary to the low-budget indie to the news report? No cinematic genre is allowed to maintain its own hermetic, unchallenged linguistic space.

 

Jeanne: As Naeem critically states above in regards to Nanook of the North, staged scenes are nothing new to documentary. They form the foundation of documentary practice and reenactments have become a frequent documentary trope in a wide range of films from Errol Morris to Vicky Funari to Joshua Oppenheimer. Harun Farocki’s film An Image (1983), documents the staging of a Playboy photograph, and directly addresses the question of the relationship of a staged image to the real. The presence of the camera always has and always will affect the scene before it. Examining how filmmakers make use of staging today is central to to the question of truth within any given scene or subject. It provides an opportunity for the unraveling of the construction of a given set of facts. It is perhaps one of the most powerful tools in combating the battle cry of ‘fake news’ and is used very effectively in the 2015 Russian film Under the Sun directed by Vitaly Mansky. The film begins with declarative language from the filmmakers that explains the circumstances of producing the film and provides a context in which to read the visual language of the film in relation to the spoken language.Under the Sun begins with the statement: (12)  The script of this film was assigned to us by the North Korean side. They also kindly provided us with an around-the-clock escort service, chose our filming locations, and looked over all the footage we shot to make sure we did not make any mistakes in showing the life of a perfectly ordinary family in the best country in the world.

 

After this statement, we see documentary scenes, staged exactly as the filmmaker’s minders intended, of a girl and her family preparing for her to join the Korean Children’s Union on the Day of the Shining Star (Kim Jong-il’s birthday). But the filmmaker also gives us the heads and tales of every scene—the down moments before and after “roll tape” and “cut” are announced. In these heads and tales, a completely different emotional tenor and bodily relationship between the subjects and their environment is represented. There is a palpable deflation of the optimistic energy that the staged scenes are designed to convey. We are asked as viewers to sort through this and to make sense of these radically different emotional states.

 

Lynne: A fascinating example of the way that film can create two parallel languages: the language of power and the language of doubt finally carry equal weight. Do we as artists need to continually remind our audience to doubt what the established order is offering?

 

Chris: I am a descendent of farm implements, that is, people who were treated as farm implements by other people who subscribed to the values of the Enlightenment. Scientific racism is troubling to me in the sense that it isn’t just called racism, i.e. that the racism isn’t enough to cancel out the utility of the modifier “scientific.” Charles Murray, conservative writer and author of The Bell Curve, can (attempt to?) make a scientific case for the inferiority of Black people. Drapetomania was a conjectured mental illness that supposedly caused Black people to flee captivity, a theory that is seen now, retroactively, as a pseudoscience but it had to pass through science first on its way to becoming pseudoscience. These aren’t merely academic questions of the scientific method. It’s one thing to be wrong about physics until new science comes along. It’s quite another to organize a society around structural anti-Blackness so that the errors are a feature and not a bug.

 

Lynne:  How have you recognized and put light on these layers of cultural discourse/truth in your own work, Chris?

 

Chris: I engaged with this in my three-channel video installation A Willing Suspension of Disbelief (2014) and the split-screened video installation Photography and Fetish (2014) which I made in response to a 1850 daguerreotype of a young American-born enslaved woman named Delia who was photographed stripped bare as visual evidence in support of an ethnographic study by Harvard professor Louis Agassiz. Agassiz held that racial characteristics are a result of differing human origins. In this work, I restage the daguerreotypes and split the figure of Delia so that she becomes both the object of Agassiz’s (and the viewer’s) gaze while simultaneously returning that gaze and articulating her subjectivity, or, speaking her mind. She gives us a piece of her mind and in so doing, disrupts the discourse of disinterested science by speaking directly to that science, while pinned like a butterfly specimen. This work posits her figure as irreconcilable, beyond recuperation in the terms of Western science. Agassiz wanted the enslaved Black body to speak the language of the commodity. His self-proclaimed project was the pursuit of scientific truth, a project to which Murray and others lay claim today.  For Agassiz (and many others like J. Marion Sims who invented modern gynecology by operating on enslaved women, some as many as 30 times without anesthesia), the quest for scientific truth was not troubled by the subjugation of Black bodies into farm implements, on the contrary, it both depended on and authorized it. As before, during the presumably pre-post-truth era of Agassiz and his heirs, police are going to continue patrolling and occupying Black spaces and they will continue to shoot, incarcerate, monitor, and otherwise colonize Black bodies, rendering Black body language mute. (13)

 

Lynne: What you are describing then, Chris, is a universally-enforced language for every aspect of reality—one that is constructed, maintained, and policed by the state.

 

Chris: Visual and media anthropologist Toby Lee has written about reality being used as a tool for the oppression of people of color, so I don’t have an unproblematic relationship with the notion of restoring reality as a stable ground for discourse. For Black people anyhow, being unrealistic has been an act of resistance so I’m quite wary of responding to the current era of “fake news” with a re-inscription of the real. I think we the surreal, the Afrosurreal, the hyperreal, not simply reality.{12} Or, deeper still, as Sun Ra says in the film Space is the Place (1974):

 

“How do you know I’m real? I’m not real, I’m just like you. You don’t exist in this society. If you did, your people wouldn’t be seeking equal rights. You’re not real. If you were, you’d have some status among the nations of the world. So we’re both myths. I do not come to you as reality, I come to you as the myth, cause that’s what Black people are, myths.” (14)

 

Jeanne: The dialectic of the mythology and the real can be held simultaneously without one negating the other. The embracing of seemingly opposite states, living comfortably in both, despite the irritation that the conflict might create, feels like a job that artists are frequently assigned. Language can define and constrict. Language can expand and liberate. Broken language/spoken language offers the possibility to move through complexity towards a reconciliation of both the myth and the real.

 

Naeem: Bengali is what I spoke with family, English is what I read books in, sometimes even in a private place away from family (well, while sitting on the balcony of the family home—so not really “away”). I am sure there’s a way to theorize all this, but what it comes down to is that English becomes a language of keeping some emotions at a distance.

 

Chris: We’ve known for quite some time now, as established fact, that “race,” for example, in genetic terms is not a fact, yet that knowledge, that truth, hasn’t stopped a single cop’s bullet from going through Black bodies at routine traffic stops. I suppose what I’m wondering is, given this history, after we pass through the present era of post-truth, then what?

 

Lynne: Then maybe the problem isn’t really with English per se, but rather with language of any kind as it circulates through our mass and social media, warping perception, turning readers toward unwarranted acts of violence in the name of some atrocity or belief that is completely unfounded by any shade of truth. Words—generated from ideology and malevolence—are inciting such horror.

 

Sky: I don’t really know what to say to that. There is power in the language we speak, but those are reflections of deeply ingrained systems of oppression, privilege, and racism in societies we live in.  The words we choose then have the same power to create understanding, inspire, mobilize, and unite.  At least that’s what I have to believe.

 

——————————————-

 

Jeanne C. Finley works in film, video, photography, installation, internet, and socially engaged work to create hybrid documentary and expanded cinema projects. Her recent projects weave a discursive, cinematic fabric of narrative, documentary interviews, scientific evidence, and archival and original footage to investigate sites of transformation. The resulting films, installations, and social engagement projects employ collaborative processes with artists, scientists, audience members, and subjects.

 

Christopher Harris is a filmmaker whose films and video installations read African American historiography through the poetics and aesthetics of experimental cinema. His work employs manually and photo-chemically altered, appropriated moving images, staged re-enactments of archival artifacts, and interrogations of documentary conventions.

 

Sky Hopinka was born and raised in Ferndale, Washington and spent a number of years in Palm Springs and Riverside, California, and Portland, Oregon and is currently based out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In Portland he studied and taught chinuk wawa, a language indigenous to the Lower Columbia River Basin. His work centers around personal positions of homeland and landscape, designs of language and facets of culture contained within, and the play between the accessibility of the known and the unknowable.

 

Naeem Mohaiemen combines films, installations, and essays to research failed left utopias and incomplete decolonizations—framed by Third World Internationalism and World Socialism. The terrain is “a revolutionary past meaningful in the sudden eruption of a revolutionary present.”{13} In spite of underscoring a left tendency toward misrecognition, a future international left, against silos of race and religion, is a hope in the work.

 

Lynne Sachs makes films, installations, performances, and web projects that explore the intricate relationship between personal observations and broader historical experiences by weaving together poetry, collage, painting, politics, and layered sound design. Strongly committed to a dialogue between cinematic theory and practice, she searches for a rigorous play between image and sound, pushing the visual and aural textures in her work with every new project.

 

 

 

ENDNOTES

 

{1} Coco Fusco, English is Broken Here: Notes on Cultural Fusion in the Americas (New York City: New Press: 1997).

{2} Erik Barnouw, Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974).

{3} Václav Havel, “The Politics of Hope” in Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Huizdala (New York: Vintage Books, 1991).

{4} James A. Snead, “On Repetition in Black Culture,” Black American Literature Forum 15, no. 4,  Black Textual Strategies, Volume 1: Theory (Winter 1981). p. 146–54.

{5} C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards, eds. The Meaning of Meaning: A Study of the Influence of Language upon Thought and of the Science of Symbolism (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co.: 1923).

{6} Edward S. Herman, Matt Wuerker, eds., Beyond Hypocrisy: Decoding the News in an Age of Propaganda (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1992).

{7} Moises Velasquez-Manoff, “Trump Ruins Irony, Too.” New York Times, March 20, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/20/opinion/trump-ruins-irony-too.html.

{8} Adrian C. Louis, “Elegy for the Forgotten Oldsmobile” in Fire Water World: Poems (Albuquerque: West End Press, 1989).

{9} http://www.english-for-students.com/Put-English.html

{10} Harvey Young, “Still Standing: Daguerreotypes, Photography, and the Black Body” in Embodying Black Experience: Stillness, Critical Memory, and the Black Body (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2010), p. 26-75.

{11} Roland Barthes [placeholder]

{12} Toby Lee, “The Radical Unreal: Fabulation, Fiction, and Fantasy in Speculative Documentary,” lecture from Visible Evidence Conference, August 8–11, 2018.

{13} Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, “Sarjah Biennial 10: Plot for a Biennial,” Bidoun 25, no. 25 (2011), https://bidoun.org/articles/sharjah-biennial-10.