Watching and hoping

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Colombia is a hopeful country. Against our best instincts, after nothing but catastrophic disappointments and broken promises, people hope that the current peace process will come to something. This is not naive hope – even in the best possible scenario, the current agreement will only address one aspect (and one actor) in our historical clusterfuck. But there is no other option. It is either trying again or accepting that the world’s oldest ongoing conflict is a permanent feature. Even those who want to continue the war sell their militaristic programme on the basis of hope: for security and growth.

In Colombia people think about identities. Not just academics either; concepts from critical theory (‘the other’, ‘symbolic violence’) permeate journalistic and political discourse. This much attention given to cultural or ideological categories in a country with so much material inequality and physical violence may seem surprising. And yet, in 2015 Colombian film production hit a record high of 36 feature releases, while around 80 film festivals are active. This is an unprecedented scenario, and the hopes are also high. It is therefore an interesting moment for me to go back to Santa Fe de Antioquia, a festival I had not been to in almost a decade. Much has changed.

On the year the Festival started, 2000, only four Colombian films had been released, and there was no structure for state support of film production, after the collapse of the previous awards and tax credits system. A critic remarked that year on “the precariousness of our environment and the effective lack of a national film industry”.1 In 2015, the festival starts with a morning meeting of the National Cinematography Council, a body that includes representatives from all branches of the trade (except, as a vehement student noted, the universities). It was set up to oversee the execution of the 2003 Film Law, which established a tax on exhibition, distribution and production to be reinvested in the making and promotion of Colombian films. Nowadays, most Colombian films receive some support from this fund, as well as using other tax incentives for national and international production. Festivals like this one also apply for these public funds, in combination with an intricate mix of in-kind or cash support (the programme lists over 20 supporters, plus a dozen media partners and a longer list of local businesses).

Santa Fe de Antioquia, 2000

An image from the first Santa Fe de Antioquia Film and Video Festival, in 2000. Taken from Kinetoscopio.

While this ensures a professional organisation and smooth delivery, this festival is not aiming to compete with Cannes. It doesn’t have the same purpose. The aforementioned critic also described the event as “after all, a provincial festival”. This is still true, though the festival’s sense of locality has changed. Initially the explicit purpose of the festival was to reinvigorate film culture in a town that did not have a cinema. There was a focus on engaging the local audience, not only as spectators but also as budding filmmakers. The festival’s relationship with the municipality and schools is still strong, and many locals do attend. However, the audience has changed since the start of the festival, due to the increase of tourism in the region, and the nurturing of an audiovisually inclined milieu in the many Media and Communications university programmes in the nearest city, Medellin.

Located in the valley of River Cauca, some 35 miles north-west from Medellin, Santa Fe de Antioquia has long been a tourist town, due to its hot, dry weather and colonial architecture. However, since the opening in 2006 of a new tunnel that shortened the travel time from Medellin in half, Santa Fe’s appeal has increased considerably. Wealthy Medellin couples choose it for picturesque weddings, thrill-seekers find a variety of lightly regulated adventure sports, and the less well-off visit on day trips by motorbike or bus. The festival’s own crowd, however, is mostly students, who come as much for the parties as for the films. Many of them are more interested in making films than in watching them, or at least watching them while sober. I don’t know why, but many people here really want to make films, and the festival has found ways to show their work to an audience mostly of peers. The talks, panels and workshops take a practical angle, from independent film production to film acting and 3D animation. There are also a number of open-air panel discussions with filmmakers and actors, a festival tradition. The presence of well-known actors (likely to be familiar to the audience through their work on television) continues to create popular interest in the academic programme.

Throughout the day, the programme of screenings, talks and workshops is spread around various indoor spaces in the town, through agreements with the municipal theatre, the Chambers of Commerce, the state university, and other public and private entities that have appropriate venues. The free-of-cost and unticketed nature of most events is in the festival’s ethos, but it creates a variety of logistical problems. During the day, the small spaces available are not enough to accommodate the demand; people were turned away from many of the screenings I attended. Many film festivals wished they had this problem – keen audiences for films that are not necessarily brand new or exclusive. Screenings of shorts by young and emerging filmmakers are also full to capacity.

Open-air screenings start at about 6.30 or 7pm, after the sun has set, and face other issues. The presenters introducing each screening explain their censorship rating and try to persuade parents to take home their children if the film has more adult content, like the lyrically sexual Cheatin’ (Plympton, 2013) which opened the festival. In any case, there are plenty of unaccompanied minors who are unlikely to heed the advice. The efficacy of the four walls and single entrance of a cinema as a device for exclusion is obvious by comparison.

Light pollution affects projection quality, but the audience is patient

Light pollution affects projection quality, but the audience is patient

Walls are also rather good at keeping light and noise out, and a tourist town on a busy weekend is definitely not a quiet place. The light from street lamps and shops makes the darkest parts of a dark movie, Violencia, completely undecipherable. The three quiet, naturalistic, devastating stories distil the tragedies and dignity of thousands of victims and survivors, and commit them to memory. They deserve better than competing for attention with the party music blaring from the corner of the park, or the tuk-tuks racing down the cobbled streets. And yet, it was important to have this film there, and La Tierra y la Sombra on the following night. This town has its own history of violence, and the watchful eye of the paramilitaries is still an unspoken presence in these colonial squares.

Panel discussion at Jesus Nazareno square

Panel discussion at Jesus Nazareno square

On Saturday evening, people are leaving mass at the Nazarene church, and in the cosy, secluded square outside it, a conversation follows two shorts. Like other events in the festival, the panel includes film actors and the director of Violencia. But the event is organised by the National Agency for Reintegration (ACR) and the International Organisation for Migration, and one of the other participants is a demobilised guerrilla combatant. As she speaks plainly of how hard it has been to work alongside the people she once fought, I fear for her. Some of her old enemies may still be circling around on their motorbikes, I think. She is brave, and speaking of peace here is a courageous act, and peace is going to take a lot of courage.

Trailer for Jorge Forero’s Violencia:


1Braulio Uribe, “I Festival de Cine y Video de Santa Fe de Antioquia: Pueblito de mis cuitas”, Kinetoscopio No. 58 (2001), pp. 107-111.

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Cine Mejoral

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When I spoke to my dad (pictured above, with my uncles, trying to look cool) about my current interest in non-theatrical exhibition, he told me again about ‘Cine Mejoral’. This was a free film show, projected on a wall, which he remembers attending when he was growing up in a small town, Chinchiná, in Colombia’s coffee region. He remembers sitting on benches in a patio with his brothers and friends, watching Westerns and Mexican films. It was the early 1960s and the town had a fine permanent cinema, where they would often spend “social triple” on a Sunday afternoon, but Cine Mejoral was free, as it was sponsored by Mejoral, a brand of painkillers. My mother, from a smaller town not far away (Pácora), also remembers these free film shows in the village square, projecting on the walls of a wealthy family’s house.

I remembered this story when Richard McDonald mentioned that some of the cinema vans used by itinerant projectionists in Thailand were bought from pharmaceutical companies. Of course, health campaigners and educators had been using mobile film units for quite a long time. In Colombia, the Ministry of Education had cinema vans at the end of the 1940s. But as soon as we started Googling, it became evident that Cine Mejoral was part of something pretty big.

Mejoral’s promotional cinema operations spread across Latin America, sticking to the same pattern. A simple search brings up examples in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Mexico, El Salvador, and Peru. In Colombia, I find a mention from the North-East border with Venezuela and the cold, remote highlands of the South. The stories are all very similar: the Mejoral van would turn up in the village, using a loudspeaker to announce the evening entertainment (hence Quechua speakers in Peru dubbed it ‘the talking car’). They would choose a wall, usually the outside of a school or municipal building, on the main square. People of all ages would turn up, sometimes bringing their own rugs or stools, to watch Westerns, slapstick comedies, and Mexican action films. They would bring snacks, typically local products like corn parcels (humitas) in Peru, or ‘cuca’ biscuits and cheese in Colombia. The nostalgic remembrances of these outdoor cinemas talk of the excitement and fun that they brought to these rural audiences.

The apparent uniformity of Cine Mejoral throughout its thousands of local instances across a very large region is interesting. So what’s behind it? A market expansion drive coupled with an ideologically motivated project of Continental integration. A perfect storm of capitalist interests, neocolonial politics, and mass media. All this to sell painkillers?

From the 1948-1949 ‘Mejoral’ calendar for Argentina

It’s a story that goes back to the aftermath of the First World War, when the German company Bayer was forced to give up their Aspirin trademark in the US and sell up to Sterling Drug. A later agreement allowed Bayer to retain the Latin American market for aspirin. Bayer was part of IG Farben and deeply entangled with the Nazi regime from the 1930s. As the US entered the war, reclaiming the Latin American consumer pharma market for American companies became as much a strategic goal as a commercial opportunity. The film trade press Cine Mundial reported in 1942 on the start of the Mejoral marketing campaign:

Sterling has 29 offices and 13 factories in our America, which will manufacture, advertise and sell new medicinal products to counteract the influence of German drugs. The campaign, of course, has the full support of each national government. (Cine Mundial Feb. 1942 p. 96)

Continental unity through shared cultural expressions was one of the strategies of the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (OCIAA), headed by Nelson Rockefeller during WWII. The OCIAA had been lobbying Hollywood to change their usually offensive representations of Latin America, as part of the ‘Good Neighbour’ policy . By the time the US entered the war, the Rockefeller Foundation had already experimented with Pan-American Radio programmes for a few years. Radio was thus the first line of work for the OCIAA, which, as Jose Luis Ortiz Garza explains, had four main propaganda goals, one of which was promoting “hemispheric solidarity”. Content was broadcast on short-wave from the US, recorded on discs for local broadcasting, or scripted to be recorded locally, and it included music, variety shows, thriller serials, and historical programmes.

Broadcast, May 1, 1944

Broadcast, May 1, 1944: Marketing solidarity by river boat

Archive research by Ortiz Garza shows that Sterling Drug (the makers of Mejoral) made a deal with the OCIAA in 1942 whereby the pharma company would buy over US$335k worth of airtime and print, and give 10% of it for OCIAA messages. Sterling also agreed to broadcast the OCIAA anthem and play it on its loudspeaker cars. Beyond its efficacy as direct propaganda, the huge publicity budgets invested by US companies in Latin American media was a bribe, or at least an enticement to toe the Allied line. Writing about Mexico, Ortiz Garza argues that

Many companies, apparently pursuing commercial goals, became peculiar branches of the propaganda or foreign affairs ministries. This was clearly noticeable in the case of manufacturers and distributors of patent medicines (n.d., p. 7, my translation)

Bayer had already had mobile cinema vans in Latin America, so when Sterling sought to claim the aspirin market for Mejoral, they had to step up. Without proper research it is impossible to say when exactly ‘Cine Mejoral’ was born, and with what equipment, and how its intricate routes were traced, or what role it had after WWII (which is when my parents remember it). This is exacerbated by the fact that ‘Cine Mejoral’ became a generic name for free outdoor screenings, which were later organised by the Church or the municipality. But whoever takes this on as a serious research project will be entering the fascinating realm where geopolitics and childhood experience come together around a sheet on a wooden frame, and the Lone Ranger gallops into a village square deep into the Colombian mountains.


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Rituals of Cinema

Besides the Screen is a research network initially funded by the AHRC and coordinated by Virginia Crisp (Coventry) and Gabriel Menotti (UFES). They have organised several international conferences and published a book, looking at all the stuff that happens around and through moving images – and not just at what’s on the screen. It seems like an appropriate way to inaugurate this blog, where I will also be thinking about cinema outwith (outside/beyond) the cinema.

Last month Gabriel, Virginia, and their collaborators organised a conference and series of workshops at the Federal University of Espiritu Santo, in Vitoria, Brazil (The event continued with three more days at Sao Paulo, but I wasn’t there). The topic was ‘Methods and Materials of Curatorship’, a broad remit that welcomed a variety of approaches, and allowed me to see some of my initial research questions in a new light.


Besides the Screen is closer to the artists’ moving image end of the spectrum than my own (historical) research has been. Hence the question of curatorship was focused on the presence of the moving image in art contexts – the museum, the gallery – and the ways in which artists and curators have explored and reappropriated the screen and the screening situation (or ‘cinema effect’, as Viviane Vallades called it). These discussions, and the morning workshops on subjects from performance to Super8, synths to time machines, brought together a mix of artists, students, academics, and curators whose paths do not cross often.

The opening keynote was by Thomas Elsaesser, who used a concise history of the art museum’s relationship with the moving image to unpack some of its old tensions and more recent convergences. As he pointed out, the art gallery and the cinema call forth different regimes of attention. Back in the 1970s, the proponents of ‘apparatus theory’ explained how the darkened room and central projection made possible a particular intensity, while the narrative drive demanded a commitment to spend some time with the movie. While the cinema industry continues to pursue this idea of spectatorship, artists have been deconstructing its elements for decades.

An example that came up in several talks was Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho. This installation not only relocates the site of the screening of a the classic Hitchcock film from cinema to gallery via low-quality video transfer, but fundamentally challenges the viewer’s expectations about the time of a film. The narrative unfolds, but very slowly; watching the whole thing seems unreasonable, and yet, as Elsaesser argued, we feel bad for walking away. We will miss something. This frustration is amplified in the case of algorithmically generated artworks, as discussed by Sarah Cook in her keynote. In conceptual art, and more recently computer-generated art, there are many examples of works which consist of an instruction to be carried out, and the output of it may go on for an indefinite (or theoretically infinite) amount of time. So it may not be possible to ever see the whole work, or to even define its boundaries. While no cinema will waste its projector bulb on an empty auditorium, we assume a video will keep playing in an empty gallery, like the tree that falls in the forest.

But while I was contemplating such metaphysical matters, Richard McDonald brought us back to a more earthly Buddhist tradition. Richard has been researching a fascinating phenomenon I had never heard about: film shows given as offerings to the spirits in Thailand. There is a thriving business sector of very skilled projectionists, with huge, elaborate setups, who can be hired to show the latest Thai and Hollywood blockbusters at certain shrines, as part of a tradition of offering entertainment to ingratiate oneself with the spirits. While I am in no position to talk about the religious practice itself, as a cinematic practice it challenges many of my assumptions. According to Richard, the people who commission these spectacular shows often do not attend, and they are not intended for a human audience (though if people happen to be there, they are not rejected either). This, of course, does not mean that they are being screened ‘for nobody’ – there is an intended audience, it is just one we cannot see.

Cinema as ritual – it is hardly a novel idea, but the tension between Thai traditions and new media art got me thinking about its nuances. The elaborate set-up for the Thai travelling shows is an instance of the ‘relocation’ of some elements of the apparatus of institutional cinema, with an emphasis on seamless reel changes, sharp images, and immersive sound. However, I had assumed that the collective/public nature of the cinema experience was imbricated with its ritual dimension; that the social practice, rather than the apparatus, was what constituted the ritual of cinema. That does not get ‘relocated‘ in this instance, or in the gallery space showing an infinite video. The ritual screening does not imply or address a human cinema spectator. However, the projection must take place in order to fulfill the ritual, which has a social function in itself (as a conspicuous display and reproduction of various forms of capital). For the artwork to do its work, we have to believe it is playing when we’re not watching.


My own research focuses on exhibition practices that do, in general, expect an audience. I was thus very interested in Virginia Crisp and Richard McCulloch’s work on the Prince Charles cinema in London and the ambivalent reactions of its more committed audiences to the notion of ‘experiential’ cinema. With its nostalgic or elitist attachment to particular practices of cinemagoing, cinephilia has its own ritualistic elements, although they seem easier to subsume into social mechanisms of distinction and identity formation. Virginia and Richard’s research, however, identifies a crucial difference between the sociable pleasures of collective cinemagoing and the ‘purely cinematic’ mode of experience, which seems to hint to a more intangible value. Understanding how ritual mediates subjective experience and social/institutional practices may be a way to look at these nuances in reception and meaning. Hence, bringing the language of ritual back into my analytical toolset may be useful.

After spending the last several years studying early cinema, the conference was an extremely vivid way to start thinking about the contemporary edges of the medium. I will write more about my own presentation and other topics later in this space.