Aesthetics Appropriate to Conditions: A Collaboration between Digital Cinematography and Theories of Black Filmmaking

 

Overview | Project One: LA Rebellion | Our Own History and Conditions | Pedagogical Outcomes

Screengrab from Kye Brewer’s Medea (2020)

OVERVIEW:

In the Spring 2020 Professor Aggie Ebrahimi Bazaz and Dr. Alessandra Raengo launched an unprecedented collaboration to pair film theory with practice by bridging together two already existing classes –Digital Cinematography and the Senior Seminar: Theories of Black Filmmaking — to offer students the opportunity to develop  “heritage knowledge,” (Joyce E. King) i.e.  the possibility to adopt an episteme centered on the history of their own (expressive) culture, as represented in the microcosm of the liquid blackness archive, by learning the profound interrelation between theory and practice and understand that one is the expression of the other, and vice versa.

The guiding idea for this groundbreaking collaboration was “aesthetics appropriate to conditions,” which is the way a seminal essay by film studies scholar Paula Massood had described a Charles Burnett’s film Killer of Sheep (1977), a foundational film from output of the LA Rebellion filmmakers.

PROJECT ONE: LA REBELLION

This characterization of Charles Burnettt’s 1977 film Killer of Sheep, the first classic among the output of the LA Rebellion Filmmakers, by film scholar Paula Masood was used as a common thread in both classes to encourage the students to think deeply and capaciously about both the political relevance of aesthetic choices as well as what might constitute their specific “conditions”, which would include but not be limited to:

  • Conditions of production
  • identification/political alliances/sensibilities
  • Geopolitical conditions
  • Artistic competencies, and more, i.e. the art historical or media-making tradition the constitutes their default language
  • The relationship between politics/ethics/aesthetics

Ultimately the idea of “aesthetics appropriate to conditions” was deployed as an immanent device to allow the students to first detect and then develop their own “heritage knowledge” and begin to write themselves into this already existing archive.

This work of “writing themselves into the archive” was structured into the production students’ first major project: Project One. 

Screengrab from Kye Brewer’s Medea (2020)

Medea (2020): A student work that pays homage to Ben Caldwell’s “project one”  

OUR OWN HISTORY AND CONDITIONS

Three important factors/histories converged to make this multi-stakeholder collaboration possible: 

  1. In the Fall 2017 Dr. Raengo began teaching a graduate seminar called Theories of Black Filmmaking in order to focus on the way filmmaking practices from the black diaspora that had been part of the liquid blackness group’s research project and archive, had directly responded to industrial, social, and ideological constraints but also severe limitations of their contemporary film theory, which never adequately addressed the ways in which the cinematic apparatus had assimilated blackness to serve its own purposes. The main goal of the class was to “glean” a black film theory through a close textual and contextual analysis of black filmmaking practices and, consequently, also challenge the divide between what constitutes theory (and who can produce it), and what constitutes practice. Ultimately it sought to offer students ways to witness a new cinematic language in the making/through making. 
  2. In spring 2019, Professor Ebrahimi Bazaz joined GSU as Assistant Professor. She came to GSU with an extensive background in community-engaged, reflexive documentary practices intended to decolonize social relations and documentary practices themselves. This work proceeds from Freirean models of praxis and what activist writer Harsah Walia describes as prefiguring. In the work of decolonization, Walia (2013) writes, “prefiguration is the notion that the methods we practice, institutions we create, and relationships we facilitation without our movements and communities align with our ideals.”

Prof. Ebrahimi Bazaz’s recent film, How to Tell a True Immigrant Storyemerges exactly out of this question. Responding to assimilationist or benevolent discourse around “immigration,” the film models a set of production and interrogative processes to drive documentary away from holding up systems of power and toward dismantling, or at least exposing them.

These values, this manner of critical inquiry, and this conviction in the power of media making to participate in social transformation are entirely values-aligned with the work of our collaboration. Prof. Ebrahimi Bazaz’s work at the intersection of theory, practice, and social justice organizing helped to foster a classroom space in which students from a variety of backgrounds could be guided in using theories of Black filmmaking as a lens to frame personally meaningful movements: struggles for Kashmiri independence; deconstructing representations of gender-based violence; fostering nurturing Queer communities; and challenging labor injustice specifically as affects Latinx / Latin American communities, as examples.  

  1. Graduate student Donovan Stanley’s availability to serve as a TA for the Digital Cinematography class. He had previously taken Theories of Black Filmmaking with Dr. Raengo and Digital Cinematography with Prof. Ly Bolia. He was thus equipped with both the skills and theoretical foundations required by this unique course pairing. An emerging, talented, and generous filmmaker, Donovan has often expressed how much Theories of Black Filmmaking transformed his understanding of what cinema can be and do, while Digital Cinematography had taught him the skills to execute his expanding cinematic vocabulary. True to his own ethos rooted in resource sharing and community building, Donovan was happy to “pass along” the knowledge he’d acquired and introduce students to the historical lineage and social change potential of Black cinematic aesthetic traditions. Donovan was also very invested in equipping students with the skills they need to make films in configurations outside of the Hollywood studio system: independent, ensemblic, experimental.

PEDAGOGICAL OUTCOMES:

By integrating learning materials for both classes, and having the students share of the meeting times, this collaboration asked the students to reflect on:

  • The critical thinking embedded in any type of “making”, whether that is the writing of an essay or shooting and editing a film
  • The language this critical thinking needs to adopt in order for their voices to be heard and true to themselves. This was the function performed by the liquid blackness archive as a repository of previous experimentation with productive conversations between filmmaking, the black visual arts and the rich and unruly archives of black music, which have taken place from the 1960s onward.
  • to understand and practice first-hand the intimate connection between personal and collective expression and the political work of form
  • Reflect on what might constitute their “conditions” and think about how their aesthetic choices might express that.

In keeping with the mode of production and political choices of Killer of Sheep, we also emphasized the idea of both filmmaking and intellectual production as collaborative practices. In the Theories of Black Filmmaking seminar this was signaled through the idea of the jazz ensemble as the model for what Stefano Harney and Fred Moten have described as “black study”. Not only have the filmmakers of the liquid blackness archive collaborated with each other as ensembles, but they also draw inspiration from the improvisatory, egalitarian, free-form sociality of the jazz ensemble in the way they approach their own filmmaking process.

Modeling egalitarian and improvisatory collaboration in our pedagogical approach to these two overlapping classes, we sought to offer an example of how the very structure and modes of engagement of a learning environment can also foster important political work.