From the Mind of Mikel

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Film Festivals as Spaces of Meaning: Researching Festival Audiences as Producers of Meaning

This is a paper I wrote a number of years ago. It appeared in Worcester Papers in English and Cultural Studies 6 (2008): 43-60.  I’m putting up here on the blog because I’m collating some readings for a module which looks at Film Festivals and I thought this would be a more accessible format for my students. I originally wrote this piece almost 10 years ago, so much more has been written on film festivals since; but the paradigms outlined haven’t developed, nor has the ethnographic study of film festivals. And maybe this piece, published on a blog, might generate a bit of discussion (which I always encourage).

MJK, 06-09-13


The “film festival” is a global phenomenon. According to Julian Stringer, there are over five hundred film festivals around the world in any given year (Stringer: 137). Some of these festivals are mammoth, star-studded gala events that are widely covered by the international press, like the Cannes film festival, while others like Edinburgh’s Dead by Dawn or The Toronto Jewish Film Festival, barely register on the global market. To experience either of these extremities, by attending or watching the media coverage of such events, is to experience two very different kinds of events; different in terms of status, wealth, visibility, but more importantly differently organized for very different purposes. This is not to suggest that Dead by Dawn should be more like Cannes, or Cannes like Dead by Dawn; I am not arguing for any single form of ideal festival form, but need to recognize, at the outset of this survey, that the term “film festival” is a generic term given to a variety of media events, and whose similarities are superficial. In order to understand what film festivals are, we need to go beyond the designated kind of event (film festival) and attempt to understand what the event itself actually is. I will propose, towards the conclusion of this paper, standard media, film and audience researches into film festivals do not begin to understand the film festival as an event in its own right.

This paper is designed as a critical survey of the existing literature on film festivals; not only to take stock of the work so far produced on this cultural phenomenon, but also to attempt to identify where that research has been found wanting. Finally I propose, if not a new methodology for studying film festivals, one which has not been utilized sufficiently, the ethnographic approach.


The Festival Report

The single most prevalent form of discourse around film festivals is the festival report; a journalistic “review” of a specific film festival, noting the significant films screened and hypothesizing what new trends in world cinema are thus observable. Robert Sklar, in a report on Cannes in 1999, succinctly summarizes not only what he sees as the critic’s job at a film festival, but furthermore lays down the critical template most festival reports follow:

… the critic’s most important task is to identify good films and do whatever can be done to help as many people as possible to see them. … My experience of Cannes after attending the festival for the past four years is that, year in and year out, there are always half a dozen or more films that merit the kind of critical support that can make a difference in their finding an audience (Sklar 1999: 27).

At a film festival, in a concentrated form, one can consume a significant amount of contemporary cinema in a relatively short space of time. This can lead to, what film critic David Sterritt refers to as “Festival Overload Syndrome” (FOS), where, deprived of any time to reflect and think about the films one has seen, festival films tend to blend into one another, and at best one can no longer tell what occurred in what film, while at worst one can no longer even stay awake (B9). Sterritt makes explicit the essentialness of risking FOS for the professional critic; as the role requires an extensive knowledge of the current developments within world cinema in order to comment on specific films (B9). But, and there is only anecdotal evidence to support this at the present, many festival audiences also overload on films at festival-time in order to experience films which in all likelihood, due to the corporate nature of cinema exhibition, they will never get the opportunity to see again. (Sterritt also notes this: B9). Therefore, like the professional critic, many film festival audience members attempt to recast themselves as experts within World Cinema by glutting themselves on films that in all likelihood, this will be the singular opportunity to view. This desire for the obscure, leads to a kind of “festival elitism”, wherein the popular is actively eschewed by some audiences, and the festival itself helps create this culture of vernacular film criticism.


Cinematic Tourism

The critical literature on film festivals is not extensive; even writings by established scholars who make reference to the film festival context, interrogate less the festival event, and tend to focus, like Bill Nichols, on the context as a means into a national cinema (1994a & 1994b). For Nichols, the Toronto International Film Festival acts as a conduit into an unfamiliar national cinema, in this case post-Revolutionary Iranian cinema. Where Nichols does address the context of the festival itself is in recognizing the frame in which he first encounters this national cinema. Nichols articles attempts, “like the anthropological fieldworker” (1994a: 17), to witness a small and representative corpus of (truly) foreign films (i.e. films from a culture the critic knows little about) by a variety of contemporary filmmakers as access into the culture of Iran itself. He uses these films as nativistic expressions of cultural authority and authenticity, through “submergence” into the voice of the colonized Other (1994b: 73). Nichols refers to this as cinematically “going native” (1994a: 17), extending his anthropological metaphor further. The film festival, for Nichols, constructs its audience as “cinematic tourists” wherein one is taken on (again, assumedly, nativisitic and authentic) travels through cultures our Western-biased cinemas do not tend to recognize. As Nichols notes, “Like the tourist, we hope to go behind appearances, to grasp the meaning or things as those who present them would, to step outside our (inescapable) status as outsiders and diagnosticians to attain a more intimate, more authentic form of experience” (1994a: 19).

Despite the immediate objections to such idealized and certainly naive assumptions Nichols makes about bringing these “authentic” insights into the colonized Other’s culture, certain aspects implicit within Nichols work needs enumerating, since they reflect various a priori assumptions made about film festivals. Firstly, within Nichols’ articles, beyond the filmic text itself, he is dependent upon the Toronto International Film Festival’s Programme Book to establish the context for seeing these films. Each year, among the various other categories and programmes the festival offers, the “Contemporary World Cinema” series, the largest single category within the festival, offering a miscellany of world cinema made, usually, within the last twelve to eighteen months – from Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania, North and South America. But there are also frequently spotlight series, separate from the “Contemporary World Cinema” programme, highlighting the past decade or so in a single nation’s cinema production, and the choice of which country to spotlight privileges those for whom their “national cinema” may not be known on the International (that is, Western) Cinema stages.  This is the context – within one of these “spotlight” series – that Nichols first encountered Iranian cinema.

As an indirect challenge to Nichols, Julian Stringer notes, this explicitly Colonialist game that some film scholars engage in: “As so many of the non-Western films that Western audiences are likely to be familiar with emerged as festival entries, scholars tend to approach them through the nostalgic invocation of those moments when non-Western industries were ‘discovered’ – that is, discovered by Westerners – at major international competitions” (Stringer: 134-135). Stinger takes this position even further, suggesting that these international cinemas do not get included within a World Cinema canon until they are (Colonially) discovered by the West, again usually through these film festivals (Stringer: 135).


In talking about a much smaller, more vernacular film festival, the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, A. G. Basoli, notes explicitly the difference between those Iranian films shown at the Human Rights Watch festival and those screened in big International film festivals like that in Toronto. The recent Human Rights Watch festival which Basoli is reporting on (like the festival reports noted previously) noted the screening of two political satires from Iran. Basoli notes that these films “marked a stark departure from the elegiac, official fare from the Iranian Board-of-Censors-approved filmmakers like Kiarostami, Majidi, or Makhmalbaf” (Basoli: 35), filmmakers which Nichols earlier had declared as “authentically” Iranian. Nichols agenda in his pieces on “discovering” Iranian cinema through the Toronto festival is to highlight that beyond perceived differences in culture and ideology, a pan-humanism emerges when filmmakers from different ideological camps can share in each other’s cinema:

the political will be refracted not only by our own repertoire of theories, methods, assumptions, and values, but also by our limited knowledge of corresponding concepts in other cultures to which we attend. (To want to know of foreign cinemas, for example, of their indebtedness to state control often betrays our own ideology of the free market and artistic license. We ask more to gain reassurance that this is a cinema like the one we imagine our own to be than to explore the intricacies of the relationship between culture, ideology, and the state) (Nichols, 1994a: 19).

By focusing on how, for example, Iranian cinema is different from Hollywood cinema, we not only see alternative ways of cinematic storytelling, but also those basic human traits Westerners and Iranians share. In addition, for Nichols, exposure to World Cinemas also calls into question our own taken-for-granted assumptions about artistic freedom. This, despite those films Nichols is basing this on, are exactly those films which Basoli characterize as culpable within the political climate of Iran. But whether or not we agree with either Nichols or Basoli, in either case, the nativistic insights into a culture we are presented with, like that of Iranian culture, are chosen and mediated by the Western agencies of International film festivals. Basoli continues noting one film in particular, Seven Days in Tehran, which was screened during the Human Rights Watch festival, when it was screened during the International Film Festival in Tehran, was presented as a French film, not an Iranian one, to avoid state censorship (Basoli: 35).  Less significant for this project is the extent of artistic repression in Iran; rather more significantly for our purposes is, as Basoli notes, there is an international film festival in Tehran. Reports on this festival are hard to come by, but at least we now know there is such a film festival.  So, at this first level of investigation, scholarship on film festivals use these events as useful starting grounds to begin insights into foreign and unfamiliar national cinema discussions. Regardless of whether the films being looked at are state-sanctioned or counter-hegemonic, both the Toronto International Film Festival and the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival are used as a kind of cinematic tourism wherein we are presented with the nativistic and assumedly “authentic” voices and images of the colonialized Other.

Perhaps it is worth noting parenthetically, that in informally talking to people attending the Toronto International Film Festival one also sees these cinematic tourists – although they may not refer to themselves as such. This kind of tourism enables people to have the illusion of these authentic cultural experiences while not leaving the comfort of Toronto, or incurring the costs of travelling. That being said, and again anecdotally, these Toronto cinematic tourists do tend to travel widely, and seemingly use a combination of the virtual and the first-hand experiences of other cultures to understand the world they live within, although one tends to inform the other; basing their acceptance of a filmic representation on their own experiences travelling in that region, while also travelling to areas they have seen on screen. However, these observations are currently merely anecdotal, and much more research needs to be done to develop this idea more.


Industrial Conferences

The film festival is also a site for marginalized filmmakers to come together. Both the work of Diawara and Gamson, although addressing very different concerns, see the festival as a space for filmmakers to display their work to each other. Diawara in particular, responding to the dynamic so advocated by Nichols previously, challenges Western film festivals proclivity towards cultural tourism in the display, if not fetishization, of cinema from the African continent. The focus of Diawara’s study is the Pan-African Film Festival in Ouagadougou (FESPACO) as a place where the interests of African filmmakers are directly addressed. Although recognizing the increased interest in the West, predominantly through events such as international film festivals, for African cinema, Diawara relates African filmmakers’ concerns that increasingly African cinema is courting these festivals excessively, making Western friendly cinema, at the expense of addressing their own cultural concerns.

Since the best African films are screened at these European and American festivals … filmmakers no longer look to FESPACO for the premiere of their films. These European and American film festivals also contribute to the ‘ghettoization’ of African films, because they only use them for the purposes of multiculturalism as required by their own citizens (Diawara: 386).

At the heart of Diawara’s concern is again the issue of cultural authenticity, regardless how it is presented. Western film festivals, the author concludes, and these festivals’ audiences, are less interested in the development of an authentic pan-African film industry, than having sufficient “ethnic” cinema to display in the spirit of a Western sense of “multi-culturalism”. Like Nichols’ naïve insights into Iranian cinema, Diawara is highly critical of how Western film festivals tend toward a fetishizing of the exotic text, rather than interesting themselves with the problems in countering Hollywood hegemony within African cinemas. This comes to the fore as Diawara discusses the concerns African filmmakers have about bringing their films to the West:

They do not want their films or themselves to be used for causes they do not understand or support. They are used to that, in France, Italy, and Canada, where people create well-paid jobs for themselves in the name of African film festivals. They have also seen their films disappear, or promises made to them withdrawn after the screening of their films. In other words, these festivals have served more to ghettoize their films than to open markets for them (Diawara: 396).

Unlike Nichols, Diawara sees the festival space as the site for filmmakers to interact with each other, meet filmmakers who work within similar circumstances (African cinema) and to engage in industrial related workshops. As Diawara notes,

[FESPACO] is only the film festival devoted to Pan-African cinema, a festival that takes seriously the task of nurturing, publicizing and celebrating African films. Ouagadougou is the place to meet filmmakers from other countries, compare notes on films, and exchange information on funding sources. FESPACO is also a homecoming and a family reunion for filmmakers, a chance to meet old friends in the same bars or restaurants and talk about the good old days. Finally, filmmakers come to Ouagadougou to discuss strategies for the decolonization of African screens, and the creation of an ever-elusive African film-industry” (Diawara: 386-387).

In addition to a celebration of African cinema, Diawara puts the emphasis on FESPACO as more of an industrial conference; the films themselves, their display, the generation of an African audience for African cinema (which is supposedly a strength Diawara sees in FESPACO over the display of African cinema in Western festivals) becomes secondary to the forum of mutual support for the impoverished African cinema.

However, within Diawara’s report on FESPACO, he notes the festival market which springs up alongside the film festival, but is not directly related to the event itself. This description is worth quoting at length:

La Rue Marchande is a discovery for many festival goers. Shaped in much the same way as the New York Book Fair, La Rue Marchande consists of several blocks closed off to traffic for one week, allowing vendors to set up their shops and pedestrians to fill the streets from sunup to sundown. La Rue Marchande is principally two streets intersecting each other, each approximately five blocks long, and crowded with more than five hundred vending stands, thousands of shoppers, and performance artists. There are millet beer vendors, tourist art merchants, vendors of original textiles from Burkina Faso …, condom stands, T-shirt stands, fruit stands, fashions from neighbouring countries and from France, musical instruments, lottery ticket booths, advertisement agencies, and booths for radio stations and political parties … La Rue Marchande is a metaphor for the market that has so far eluded African cinema and many industrial prospects on the continent. For one week, La Rue Marchande bustles with buyers and all varieties of merchandise. At the end of the week, the buyers disappear and the market with them. Similarly, African cinema realizes its dream of African audiences during the week of FESPACO. During that time, the crowd gathers in front of movie theatres, the international press talks about the films, and the streets are animated with discussions of individual films. At the end of the festival, the tourists go back home, Western and Kung Fu films resume their monopoly of the movie houses, and African cinema waits for two more years to be celebrated again (Diawara: 389-390).

Despite Diawara seeing this market place as a metaphor for the African film industry (a lovely metaphor, to be sure), he misses the significance of the Rue Marchande market in seeing FESPACO as a proper festive event, discussed below.


Festivals and Tourism

Janet Harbord’s chapter in her Film Cultures is one of two serious attempts at understanding the film festival as an event in its own right, rather than as a discursive context for other issues (i.e. new trends in World Cinema or the post-Colonial fight for recognition in Third Cinema). Recognizing the film festival as a multidimensional film exhibition context, Harbord identifies four central discourses: 1) like Diawara above, as a conference for independent filmmakers (Harbord: 60); 2) as a marketplace for film producers, distributors, and exhibitors (Harbord: 60); 3) like Sklar and others, as a preview for noteworthy upcoming films and the early identification of potential new trends in world cinema (Harbord: 60); and finally 4) as a cite of civic discourse on the public presentation of the city hosting the festival itself, providing “an intertext between the filmic event and the location” (Harbord: 60). It is this final discourse that Harbord focuses on with her eye, historically, on the development within Europe of a post-War cultural capital. In this respect, Harbord’s chapter has much in common with Marla Stone’s work on the Venice Biennale in the Fascist period. Both authors explore how by studying a specific film festival, a self-portrait emerges of how the official culture of the hosting society chooses to see itself (Stone: 294). As Harbord notes: “There is no doubt that film continues to be a significant cultural product for the nation in terms of representation, a production economy, tourism and as a symbolic asset” (Harbord: 72), and the film festival is the locus of that representation. Granted that Stone’s work is historical, reconstructing the image of cultural perception in the late Italian Fascist period, while Harbord’s is much more contemporary, but not much seems to have changed. Stone notes, referring to the organization of the Biennale: “Internationally staffed juries awarded prizes in the tense and staged ceremonies; the Festival’s premieres and closings were carefully orchestrated, and the whole of the event was tied to the glamour and fantasy of Hollywood” (Stone: 295). While Stone describes the festival as evidence of a Fascist aesthetic, her description sounds not unlike contemporary descriptions of Cannes or the Toronto festival.

Julian Stringer takes this idea even further: not only are film festivals post-War (European) re-inventions of the geographical/urban/modern self, but through a complex “festival circuit”, these festivals, and therefore these cities/spaces/selves, become ranked in importance (Stringer: 138). “Inequality is thus built into the very structure of the international film festival circuit” (Stringer: 138). The assumption here is that previously, film cultures were predicated upon the importance of the national film industries (American, French, Italian, German, etc), but that within those national contexts, local interests, based, as Harbord argues, on the relative strengths of the local tourist boards (Harbord: 68), shifted this nexus to a list of specific urban centres (New York, Toronto, Cannes, Edinburgh).  Stringer continues:

My argument is that it is cities which now act as the nodal points on this circuit, not national film industries. In short, I am asking that we pay as much attention to the spatial logics of the historical and contemporary festival circuit as we do to the films it exhibits. The circuit exists as an allegorization of space and its power relationships; it operates through the transfer of value between and within distinct geographic localities (Stringer: 138).

This battle for recognition, Stringer recognizes, is a fusion between the festival itself and the host city’s own self-image (often heavily mediated through the agency of the local tourist board and civil leadership infrastructures) (Stringer: 140).

But Stringer, like Harbord, are dealing with the large festivals – Cannes, Toronto, Venice, Berlin – and despite the applicability of their discourses to smaller city-based festivals (Edinburgh, London)  and their relative places within the festival circuit’s pecking order, this is not the whole picture. Stringer refers to a specific class of film festivals as “universal festivals”, large(ish) film festivals which exhibit a cross-section of contemporary world cinema to appeal to the widest possible audience, with the added attraction of the promise of celebrity attendance (Stringer: 141). The differences between the Toronto, Edinburgh, Cannes and Venice film festivals is really one of scale, based on where it appears in the circuit’s ranking of similar festivals. Our interest, however, lies less in these “universal festivals”, than in the smaller, community based film-festivals (we refer to these as “vernacular film festivals”, as they tend to emerge out of the hosting community itself), which Stringer more or less dismisses as handling a “specialized audience” (Stringer:141).


An Ethnographic Approach

Beyond Stringer’s “universal festivals” are those vernacular events which reflect the cultural interest in specific genres (i.e. horror film festivals, like Edinburgh’s Dead by Dawn), ethnic groups (like the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, cf. Koven, 1999), political groups (like the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, cf. Basoli), and sexual identity groups (like the Lesbian and Gay film festivals, cf. Gamson) to name but a few examples. The discourses on the “universal festivals” remain unsatisfactory in applicability to these more vernacular festivals. And yet, the scholarship on these other festivals often falls into the same intellectual paradigms as set-up by the discourse on the “universal festivals”. For example, Basoli’s article, like Skar on Cannes or Nichols on Toronto, explores those films the critic has identified as particularly significant within the context of the festival. Gamson, like Stone and Harbord (more so than Stringer), while situating the context within a larger discourse of collective identity (Gamson: 526), the article itself is more historical, chronicling the development of these festivals with the lesbian and gay communities of New York. Van Extergem, on the Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film (BIFFF), despite noting the participatory culture of the BIFFF as symptomatic of the kind of audience who attend fantasy films, situates the festival as a forum for the emerging respectability of the genre films themselves, rather than a study of the festival itself (Van Extergem: 216-217).

For me, the main failing of most studies on the film festival, “universal” or vernacular, has to do with a lack of engagement with the film festival “as festival”. In Koven’s work on the Toronto Jewish Film Festival (1999), he attempted to identify how film festivals, like more traditional festival celebrations (based on the anthropological definitions), were liminal experiences, and rooted within a sacred experience (of sorts) for the community to celebrate itself.

Van Extergem offers, however, a similar insight into the study of the film festival indirectly (much as Diawara did above). Van Extergem notes:

In large measure, every film is conditioned by ritual since it takes place as a communal act, partitioned from everyday life. A film festival, as compared to a regular movie screening, is even more detached from the everyday experience: it takes place but once a year, it presents films ‘for the first time’ and has extras such as the presence of guests (‘stars’) and the creating of a more communal, more festive and, in many ways, more significant context by way of animation, presentation and the simulation of a certain ‘ambience’ (Van Extergem: 224).

Although Van Extergem does not expand on this observation, there are several factors which need highlighting: 1) cinema going is communal, and regardless of any aesthetic appreciation of the filmic text, to watch a film with other people creates an ‘event’ and that event needs to be understood within the community is occurs within; 2) unlike normal cinema going, film festivals as annual events are not only more detached as special events, but they are “calendricised” – they become part of that community’s calendar and the event is anticipated each year, meaning we need to consider the festival within the cultural context of a community’s calendar of celebration; and 3) the inclusion of celebrity guests operates on two different cultural registers: on the one hand, as Van Extergem notes, it marks the event as “more special”, more outside of the everyday, since these guests’ presence partially erases the distinction between their on-screen illusion and the material reality of their being there, but also, particularly within the context of the vernacular festivals, underlines the shared commonality with the celebrity guest – that both the audience member and guest are Jews, or Lesbian, or horror fans, etc. and their presence at the festival enforces that commonality. Perhaps even with some of the “universal festivals”, the shared commonality for the local residents who attend these events, has a similar function, of having big-name celebrities in one’s home town.

What does Van Extergem mean when he refers to this sense of BIFFF feeling more “communal, more festive” and therefore “more significant”? How do we understand the communal and the festive? In the longer version of the paper Koven published on the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, which was a chapter from his doctoral thesis, he outlined how that particular festival could be seen as a “proper festival”, based on the folkloristic and anthropological definitions of such. Alessandro Falassi’s definition of “festival” is useful to understand film festivals, in particular, and the relationship between cinema and community in general.  Falassi defined “festival” as “a periodically recurrent, social occasion in which, through a multiplicity of forms and a series of coordinated events, participate [sic.] directly or indirectly and to various degrees, all members of a whole community, united by ethnic, linguistic, religious, historical bonds, and sharing a worldview” (Falassi: 2).

Can film festivals be seen in this folkloristic/anthropological way? Some anthropologists shy away from viewing festivals that celebrate popular culture, seeing instead a commercialization factor as replacing the expression of community itself (Stoeltje: 261-262; Abrahams: 171, and this is a point raised Stringer and Harbord too). Beverly Stoeltje noted “those events that do have festival in their titles are generally contemporary modern constructions, employing festival characteristics but serving the commercial, ideological, or political purposes of self-interested authorities or entrepreneurs” (Stoeltje, 1992: 261-262). At one level Stoeltje is correct, particularly with the larger festivals (Toronto, Cannes, BIFFF), but the more vernacular festivals tend to be more rooted within the lived experiences of the communities which host them. On the other hand, Stoeltje is perhaps too quick to dismiss the larger festivals, since, depending on how one approaches the bigger “universal festivals”, these too can be seen as rooted within an alternative perception of the community (FESPACO, for example, or the relationship between the host cities of Berlin, Toronto, Cannes or Edinburgh and how the local residents view the presence of the festival).

According to Stoeltje, a festival is made up of six types of acts: an opening ceremony, rituals, dramas and contests, feasts, dance and music, and finally a concluding event (Stoeltje, 1992: 264-265).  Although this morphology is considered descriptive, rather than prescriptive, a certain ordering of these acts and their respective inclusion is by design and self-conscious.  But what Stoeltje does raise is that ethnographic investigation into any kind of festival is essential in understanding its relation to the community who produce it, regardless of how that community is delineated. To ethnographically study a film festival, as I suggest to do with Dead by Dawn, is, to begin with, an attempt to identify some application of Stoeltje’s festival morphology: specifically what constitutes the festival’s opening and closing ceremonies? What delineates the opening of the festival and what marks its conclusion? As special events, of any kind, something must demarcate these poles, so how is that demarcation made special?  And then how does that demarcation reflect the cultural beliefs of the group?

Ritual, while rarely evident in the explicit religious conotation of the term, also needs noting. Van Extergem already noted what he referred to as the ritual aspect of going to a film festival film. Beyond that, however, Falassi, while like Stoeltje, categorically not referring to film festivals, expanded on the different kinds of ritual activities indicative of festival behaviours. For example, part of the opening ceremonies, for Falassi, are “rite of purification” where they cleanse the festival  space “… by means of fire, water, or air, or centered around the solemn expulsion of some sort of scapegoat carrying the ‘evil’ and ‘negative’ out of the community” (Falassi: 4).  Although, I am unaware of any such scapegoating rituals at any of the film festivals I have attended, certain kinds of cleaning and organization is required in immediate preparation for the event. At larger festivals, where opening night gala presentations require special guests requiring special treatment, red carpets are sometimes laid “ceremoniously”. Or the posters in the lobby will be changed to those more relevant to the event. Despite the seeming banality of these “rites of purification” they do underline that the event is somehow different to the everyday operation of the space wherein which the event will be occurring and the metamorphosis of the space is a highly symbolic gesture underlining the “sacred” nature of the festival. Part of the ethnographic project, of course, is not only to make the strange familiar, but also to make the familiar strange; and we need to problematize the assumptions we make about the special activities involved in ritualized preparations. These spaces of course are regularly purified through a ritualistic application of water, called “cleaning” (one hopes). What is the act of cleaning, but a ritual of purification?

230957_4596143340_9414_nFalassi also refers to various rites of competition (Falassi: 5), and any film festival which has films in competition falls into this activity. The sacredness of the awards given, while clearly of material value (in terms of increased box office, status, distribution deals) also evoke their sacred worth by their names – the “palme d’or”, “the golden bear”, etc. Even with the more vernacular festivals, like Dead by Dawn, which still grant “best films” awards, but instead of an elite jury who are separate from the main festival participants, the awards are granted by the public attending/celebrating themselves. Surely who is included in granting these “golden awards” is significant in reflecting who can lay claim to being part of these communities? And what about those festivals who do not have any competition amongst their films? What kinds of competitions exist amongst the festival participants?

The inclusion of the celebrity guests and the variety of consumable wears on display can be seen as functioning akin to Falassi’s rites of “conspicuous display,” which the author noted as “permit[ing] the most symbolic elements of the community to be seen, touched, adored, or worshiped; their communicative function [being] “phatic”; of contact” (Falassi: 4). The nature of the festival determines the phatic degree of the display of those “sacred elements” for that community: while the festival participant might be able to see (from a distance) or perhaps photograph a celebrity in attendance at the “universal festivals” like Cannes or Toronto, at the vernacular festivals like Dead by Dawn, the guests circulate among the audience themselves, thereby enhancing the sense of communitas. But these sacred relics of the community can also manifest itself, as Diawara seemingly unaware points out regarding the La Rue Marchande marketplace. Rather than seeing these market stalls as prima facie evidence of the commercialization of the event, we need to look more ethnographically at the function and actual use of these market spaces for the community itself. Falassi further notes that such “rites of conspicuous consumption” in addition to “conspicuous display” is equally a marker of festival behaviour (Falassi: 5).224092_4596148340_307_n

Finally, and probably most significantly, there must also be some kind of “rite of reversal”, which according to most scholars is the litmus test for a “real” festival.  Falassi notes that this rite “through symbolic inversion, drastically represents the mutability of people, culture, and of life itself” (Falassi: 4, emphasis added). As Bakhtin noted,

… all the symbols of the carnival idiom are filled with this pathos of change and renewal, with the sense of the gay relativity of prevailing truths and authorities.  We find here a characteristic logic, peculiar logic of the “inside out”, of the “turnabout”, of a continual shift from top to bottom, from front to rear, of numerous parodies and travesties, humiliations, profanations, comic crownings and uncrownings” (Bakhtin: 11).

Likewise did Falassi note this, and in turn, began to point towards meaning in this reversal: “if we consider that the primary and most general function of the festival is to renounce and then to announce culture, to renew periodically the lifestream of a community by creating new energy, and to give sanction to its institutions, the symbolic means to achieve it is to represent the primordial chaos before creation, or the historical disorder before the establishment of the culture, society, or regime where the festival happens to take place” (Falassi: 3). Van Extergem already noted, in some respect, how different film festival going is to everyday media consumption, but surely this is not sufficient to be considered a rite of reversal. Again, at this stage in the research, anecdotal evidence must suffice: in an informal survey of the 2004 Dead by Dawn participants, one of the most frequently cited reasons for their attending was to be able to gorge themselves on horror cinema for a few days before returning to their normal everyday lives.  Instead of seeing one, or maybe two movies a week, they will attend dozens – feature length and shorts, from all over the world, and if we consider the “all-nighter”, which begins at midnight on the Saturday (after a full day and evening of screenings), and runs through until 11:00 or so Sunday morning, a pattern emerges of “specialized” film attendance – a reversal of the normal patterns of cinema attendance. Again, this is a casual and superficial observation requiring much more detailed and in-depth ethnographic investigation, but even cursorily film festivals “reverse” the norms of everyday cinema going.

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Conclusions: Proposing Future Study

A larger project, of which this is but a first step within, is to ethnographically explore the film festival. My question is put succinctly: how can film festivals be considered as “festivals”, at least as the anthropological literature understands them? Although one could conduct an ethnographic study of one of the major “universal festivals”, such as Cannes, Toronto, the BIFFF or even Edinburgh’s International Film Festival, it the smaller, vernacular festivals that hold the most interest, for it is at these events where the community itself is on display as a public recognition of its very existence. And it is in this spirit that further research needs to be done.


Film Festival Bibliography

Abrahams, Roger D (1987).   “An American Vocabulary of Celebrations”.  Alessandro Falassi ed.  Time Out of Time: Essays on the Festival.  Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 173-183.

Bakhtin, Mikhail M (1968/1984). Rabelais and His World.  Helene Iswolsky trans.  Blooming­ton: IndianaUniversity Press.

Bangré, Sambolgo (1996). “African Cinema in the Tempest of Minor Festivals” in Imruh Bakari and Mbye Cham eds. African Experiences of Cinema. London: BFI. 157-161.

Basoli, A. G. (2002). “Redefining Human Rights: The Human Rights Watch International Film Festival” Cineaste 27.4: 34-35.

Chin, Daryl and Larry Qualls (2001). “Open Circuits, Closed Markets: Festival and Expositions of Film and Video”. PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 23.1: 33-47.

Christensen, Mads Egmont (2000). “Dogma and Marketing” p.o.v.: A Danish journal of Film Studies 10: Issue_10/section_4/ artc1A.html. Last accessed 04 January 2005.

Diawara, Manthia (1994). “On Tracking World Cinema: African Cinema at Film Festivals” Public Culture 6: 385-396.

Dwoskin, Stephen (1997). “Whose Festival?” in Ann Pointon with Chris Davies eds. Framed: Interrogating Disability in the Media. London: BFI. 222-223.

Falassi, Alessandro (1987). “Festival: Definition and Morphology.” Alessandro Falassi ed.  Time Out of Time: Essays on the Festival.  Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 1-10.

Gamson, Joshua (1997). “The Organizational Shaping of Collective Identity: The Case of Lesbian and Gay Film Festivals in New York” in Martin Duberman ed. A Queer World: The Centre for Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. New York: New YorkUniversity Press. 526 – 543.

Harbord, Janet (2002). Film Cultures: Production, Distribution and Consumption. London: Sage.

Koven, Mikel J. (1999). ‘”You Don’t Have to be Filmish”: The Toronto Jewish Film Festival’. Ethnologies 21.1: 115-132.

Kwon, Jae-Woong (2003). “[Interview with] Kwang Woo Noh, Coordinator of Korean Film Festival”. Asian Cinema Spring/Summer: 207 – 210.

Mendik, Xavier (2004). “The Fantastik Film Festival: An Overview and Interview with Magnus Paulsson” in Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik eds. Alternative Europe: Eurotrash and Exploitation Cinema since 1945. London: Wallflower Press. 232 – 235.

Nichols, Bill (1994a). “Discovering Form, Inferring Meaning: New Cinemas and the Film Festival Circuit”. Film Quarterly 47.3: 16-30

Nichols, Bill (1994b). “Global Image Consumption in the Age of Late Capitalism”. East-West Film Journal 8.1: 68-85.

O’Regan, Tom (2002). “Australian Cinema as a National Cinema” in Alan Williams ed. Film and Nationalism. New Brunswick, NJ: RutgersUniversity Press, 89-136.

Riskala, Tuomas (2004). “The Espoo Ciné International Film Festival” in Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik eds. Alternative Europe: Eurotrash and Exploitation Cinema since 1945. London: Wallflower Press. 228 – 231.

Scheighofer, Martin (2001). “Austrian Film between Festival Success and Market Constraints” in Willy Riemer ed. After Postmodernism: Austrian Literature and Film in Transition. Riverside, CA: Ariadne Press, 55-61.

Schwartzman, Karen (1995). “National Cinema in Translation: The Politics of Film Exhibition Culture” Wide Angle 16.3: 66-99.

Sklar, Robert (1996). “Beyond Hoopla: The Cannes Film Festival and Cultural Significance”. Cineaste 22.3: 18-20.

Sklar, Robert (1999). “Snobs and Snubs at Cannes” Cineaste 24.4: 25-27.

Staiger, Janet (2002). “A Neo-Marxist Approach: World Film Trade and Global Culture Flows” in Alan Williams ed. Film and Nationalism. New Brunswick, NJ: RutgersUniversity Press, 230-248.

Sterritt, David (2000). “How ‘Festival Overload Syndrome’ Affects Critics”. The Chronicle of Higher Education. 4 August: B9.

Stoeltje, Beverly J. (1992).   “Festival”.  Richard Bauman ed.  Folklore, Cultural Performances, and Popular Entertainments: A Communications-Centered Handbook.  New York: OxfordUniversity Press. 261-271.

Stone, Marla (2002). “The Last Film Festival: The Venice Biennale Goes to War” in Jacqueline Reich and Piero Garofalo eds. Re-Viewing Fascism: Italian Cinema, 1922-1943. Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press, 293-314.

Stringer, Julian (2001). “Global Cities and the International Film Festival Economy” in Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice eds. Cinema and the City: Film and Urban Societies in a Global Context. London: Blackwell. 134-144.

Van Extergem, Dirk (2004). “The Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film” in Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik eds. Alternative Europe: Eurotrash and Exploitation Cinema since 1945. London: Wallflower Press. 216 – 227.



Found-Footage Films & the Visual Rhetoric of the Legend Film

This was a paper I delivered at the annual International Society of Contemporary Legend Research (ISCLR) conference held in Lexington, KY in May 2013.

In “Legendry and the Rhetoric of Truth”, Elliott Oring (2008) proposes legend scholars need to address various rhetorical devices legend storytellers and audiences avail themselves to in performance. In many respects, Oring’s article is perhaps too essentialist and proscriptive to be useful to legend scholars themselves. What I am doing in this paper is to use Oring to develop a framework for a discussion of the legend-films, to look at the rhetorical devices film-storytellers use to convince us of the veracity of their narrative. The film text itself, rather than seeing it as a definitive artistic product, needs to be considered as a variant text; with sequels, remakes, and derivative films displaying both conservative trends within the filmmaking tradition it is self-consciously situated and dynamic variation in creating a ‘new spin’ on this tradition.

paranormal-activity-4-01The films I am discussing here are known as “found-footage” films; a term which is used to describe both artistic installations which use archival film & video footage as a montage and to a contemporary horror movie tradition which purports to be video footage of actual quasi-legendary occurrences. This latter tradition of mockumentary film making is currently very popular with four films in the Paranormal 0Activity series (2007-2012), two Grave Encounters films (2011-2012), and a whole slew of variations on this model. Nor is this tradition limited to American filmmakers: the Spanish [REC] series (2007-2012) and the British Zombie Diaries series (2006-2011) also follow this tradition. Of course, this kind of horror movie goes at least as far back as The Blair Witch Project (1999) if not further back to Cannibal Holocaust (1980).  Legendary topics explored in these films fall into two main camps: documents of the zombie apocalypse and of paranormal hauntings. Although some other variations include aliens (The Fourth Kind [2009] & Cloverfield [2008]), monsters (Evidence [2011]) and demonic possession (The Devil Inside [2012] & The Last Exorcism [2010]).  In discussing these films, my interest lies in how the film constructs its own claims to veracity; in other words, I’m looking at the films’ visual rhetoric, on how it presents its legend materials to convince us of its truth.

In Oring’s article, he divides his schemata into three parts: what he calls “Ethos” (131-138), “Logos” (138-157) and “Pathos” (157-158) [and significantly, not D’Artagnan], but which can be simplified (and made less pretentious) as the Teller, the Tale and the Affect. Each of these parts I shall be discussing in turn. While some of Oring’s discussion is less relevant to films than oral or written variants, I am adapting these ideas as relevant.

Rhetoric of the Legend-Film

The Fourth KindOring begins his schemata by discussing the legend teller, what Oring characterizes as “Ethos”, the “authority of the source”.  For this application to popular films, the question is modified slightly to ask where is the film coming from? The mockumentary style of most of these films opts for an immediacy of experience, of raw footage caught at the point of encounter, rather than having the narrative retold after the fact or second hand. We are dealing with a form of legend-telling that is presentation of the event/experience rather than a representation of that narrative. In The Fourth Kind, recreated docudrama footage starring Milla Jovovich and Will Patton is self-consciously intercut with purported ‘documentary’ evidence, to tell this story of alien abductions.

Historical docudramas, despite their recreation of historical events, often go out of their way to demonstrate the veracity of their production by evoking the historians or other experts who advised them. Sometimes this authority goes so far as to be witnesses to the events portrayed within the film. The case of The Fourth Kind is extreme: having the actors play their roles self-consciously intercut with faux-archival footage is uncommon. Mostly the authority of these films is ascertained by being the footage of the encounter itself. It (whatever ‘it’ is) happens in front of us, as it happened to the person holding the camcorder. We experience the legend narrative almost first hand; the distance to the event is minimalized as much as it can be (Oring, 2008, pp. 133-135). The distance of the narrator to the event is key in ascertaining the veracity of the encounter. In the Paranormal Activity films, for example, the film is a construction of primary video footage of a series of hauntings. When the camera is knocked over by ‘the ghost’, we receive, as experience, that physical assault; because the camera keeps rolling (and the inclusion of that footage in the final film), we have been knocked over too. The distance between tale teller and tale is minimized as much as possible; the technological equipment (the video camera) is the only mediation between us and the encounter.

Grave EncountersIn Grave  Encounters, the film opens with Jerry Hartfield (Ben Wilkinson), a reality TV producer who has the rights to the “Grave Encounters” video footage. Not only does Hartfield’s mediation of the narrative, as someone who is an expert in reality TV, authorize the showing of the footage, he fully admits that the viewers need to make up their own minds as to the veracity of the story. We are positioned as complicit with Hartfield in this narrative we are about to witness. Consider how many of these films presuppose the actual videographers deaths: Cannibal Holocaust, The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity [all of them], Grave Encounters and even Troll Hunter all work within the rhetorical strategy that the footage was captured at great personal risk to the camera-operator.  Risks which resulted in the deaths of whomever was holding the camera.


The bulk of Oring’s schemata justifiably pertain to the narrative itself; what rhetorical tools do the storyteller use to convince us that their narrative is true. Following suit, I want to look at some of the rhetorical tools filmmakers use to tell their stories. While Oring’s “Logos” is about the belief and commentary of the legend’s core, he also suggests (appropriately, I think) that these narratives are discursive; that they function to facilitate larger discussions about their accuracy than to offer essentialist acceptance or disbelief.

Grave EncountersTo begin with, these films are presented in a linear fashion; that is, the narrative progresses, prosaically, from event A to B and onwards. These films mostly avoid flashbacks, although the later Paranormal Activity films do include a few sequences out of order to connect the current film within the series. More significantly are the films’ lengthy introductions; these movies take a while to get going and are often filled with banal young people being horrid. However, as Oring noted, the extraneous details often included in legend narratives work towards grounding the story in our own worlds. These sequences within the film are therefore rhetorical strategies to link the film narrative within the lived experiences of the intended audience. These films are almost all R-rated, yet are focused on “younger” adults (late teens/early twenties). In Grave Encounters 2, the film opens with Alex’s experiences as a film student at university; presumably, this is the intended audience of the film – university-aged kids. Grave Encounters, focusing on the pilot episode of a fictional ghost-hunting show, is rooted within the cheesy posturing of actual ghost-hunting shows which, presumably, the filmmakers anticipate their audience will be familiar with.  In both of these examples, the “slow build” to anything paranormal happening are to give the narrative details that Oring identified in legend-telling rhetoric.

Troll HunterThe tone of the film is often crucial to the rhetoric of the truth claims. These films are almost always presented earnestly. The encounters chosen tend to be serious, rather than flippant – ghosts, aliens, zombies, etc. Micah, for example in Paranormal Activity, is largely incredulous to the haunting and exacerbates the events by openly challenging the presence for proof (including bringing in a Ouija board). In Paranormal Activity 3, Randy and Katie play “Bloody Mary” together and hope to meet Toby, the presence haunting this family across way too many sequels. Micah’s incredulity costs him his life, and Randy is so frightened by the encounter he quits his job and never visits again, much like the babysitter earlier in the film. Even in the almost parodic Troll Hunter, wherein fairy-tale trolls are discovered to live in the Norwegian north, the laughter in the film is of surprise and excitement, not mocking or dismissive of the discovery.  The cheesy ghost-hunting show “Grave Encounters” effectively turns the tables on these frauds by encountering actual ghosts in an abandoned insane asylum.  And the experience ends in all their deaths.

Paranormal ActivityOring identifies narrative framing particular to legends; he distinguishes between “words-as-words” and “words-as-worlds” (Oring, 2008, p. 140). When the narrative is explicitly told as a narrative, that is, its story-telling-ness is foregrounded, the account has less veracity than if the narrative attempts to present the world itself. Regardless of the accuracy of the account or the authority of the source material, a film’s veracity is diminished when its artifice is considered. In a docudrama, wherein actors are playing roles and sets are built (and in particular when special effects are used) there is a level of artificiality involved. When the film is presented as unmediated footage, the veracity increases. The Amityville Horror may be based on a true story (even if ultimately that story was discounted), but the 1979 film starring James Brolin, Margot Kidder and Rod Steiger, is a representation (rather than presentation) of the narrative. To demonstrate the opposite, despite Paranormal Activity being completely fictional, it’s apparent presentation of actual occurrences – including the absence of opening or closing credits – was sufficiently persuasive for my barber to assure me the first Paranormal Activity film was a ‘true story’.

Apartment 143Oring suggests that the apparent lack of artistry in legend telling, supports the narrative’s truthfulness; the story’s own logic and prosaic events resists aesthetic embellishments (Oring, 2008, p. 154). Certainly in the found-footage films, the cinematography is meant to convey prosaic truthfulness, not pretty pictures. These are ugly films because the aesthetics of composition are designed to only convey visual information. “Realism”, as an aesthetic concern, is received as inauthentic; the visual element in these films is imperfect to therefore increase believability. Probably half the shots in the entire film Apartment 143 are from overhead surveillance camera angles designed to show as much of the room as possible.

/ In The Devil Within, the opening few minutes of the film does several of these moves one after the other.

First of all, the Vatican denies the legitimacy of exorcism and the evidence presented in the film. Dates are given which specifies when the events documented took place. 911 audio, with on-screen transcription, is presented which seems to be authentic. The evidence of the 911 call is supported by what is reputed to be authentic police documentation of the murder scene, presented in unemotional distanced evidentiary manner.  Archival news footage of the events corroborates the police account. And finally, interview footage with Isabella Rossi, Maria’s daughter, further corroborating what happened, but offering an alternative interpretation on the events and including home video footage. Six different types of evidence are presented, each of which supports the previous one in some way. Even commentary from consulting neurologist Dr. Jeff Victoroff, apparently playing himself, suggesting that Maria’s case is one of mental illness not demonic possession works to uphold this discursive aspect to the legend-film. The Devil InsideThe Devil Within went so far to not only corroborate its own (fictional) narrative, but also, as part of that strategy, also to potentially debunk it. The first-person videography of the film counters any attempt at debunking by presenting raw footage of exorcisms; so we are either to believe the scientists who have only passingly diagnosed Maria Rossi as mentally ill or our own eyes. At the end of the film, viewers are encouraged to go to the film’s webpage ( for more information on how the investigation is progressing, combining fake pages about the film with actual links to discussions and documentation about possession and exorcism. Alas, at the time of writing, this webpage seems to have been taken down, probably by the Vatican in a conspiracy of silence against the truth.


The Rossi FilesFinally, we come to “Pathos”, by which Oring means the rhetorical devices used to evoke certain emotions and responses from the audience. Affect is of course different from effect; the former is the intended response while the latter is the actual response; so in this case, we are looking for what the filmmaker anticipates our reaction to be by the construction of the narrative. With the inclusion of the “Rossi Files” webpage at the end of The Devil Inside, the filmmakers not only intend for the film’s audience to go to the webpage when they get home, there is also a suggestion that the audience will be scrambling for a pen and paper in the dark of the cinema. There’s also the suggestion, as it happened with me, that seeing the film on DVD, particularly a DVD watched on one’s laptop, that one will instantly go and check out that page. The inclusion of that Internet address then suggests activity post-screening, regardless of the actuality of that activity.

Of course, with all these films, the intention is to frighten us. Oring notes that legends are “more likely to be regarded as true if it conforms to the … emotional … expectations of the audience” (Oring, 2008, p. 157; emphasis in original). The emotional expectation of these films is fear. Jump-scares and the build up of tension work to have this emotional affect on us. We judge the success of any of these films on whether or not it succeeds in creating those emotions; a good Paranormal Activity film is one which is scary. We can conclude from the number of films like these produced every year that they are sufficiently emotionally satisfying to warrant further production. To date, the fifth Paranormal Activity film is schedule for release in late (probably around Halloween) 2013. Last Exorcism 2A second Last Exorcism film is also scheduled for a late 2013 release. But there are other expectations suggested here too.

Oring notes that these narratives must meet the “cognitive … expectations of its audience” (Oring, 2008, p. 157); applied here reveals the logic of the film franchise. Broadening this idea out, understanding a specific “Robin Hood” story does not require previous knowledge of all the possible “Robin Hood” stories. Each legend-film must be able to stand on its own without reference to anything else. While a bifurcated audience, between those who have followed a series and those for whom this is their first encounter, is suggested, each delivering related but different rewards, these films must simultaneously stand alone and work in the series. Unlike other film franchises, where appreciation requires a full understanding of the narrative progression across several films, these films do both. This cognitive dimension to these films poses some problems for the folklorist studying these films: namely they violate their own belief traditions. Too much veracity is sacrificed for sensationalism in the films. For example, across the Paranormal Activity films, rather than simply a ghost haunting the house, Toby is a demon who can fling people spectacularly across the room. In The Devil Inside, rather than maintaining the ambivalence towards belief, the exorcism sequences feature the possessed able to crawl, spider-like, up walls and to pull out almost every possession-movie cliché since The Exorcist. Perhaps the most absurd moment occurs in Paranormal Activity 3, where the babysitter (and assumedly the audience) is freaked out by an actual sheet-wearing ghost.

[REC]The final rhetorical aspect suggested by Oring is regarding the “moral expectations of its audience” (Oring, 2008, p. 157); and it is here that these films apparently succeed for most of its audience, but fail for me. The zombie epidemic in the [REC] films is caused, not by chemical or biological weapons, but by demonic possession. In the American remake of the [REC], Quarantine, the demonic possession element is dropped in favour of a biological agent. There appears to be shift in the moral centre of these narratives; demons in one cultural context will sell, but not in another. In the Spanish Atrocious, a found-footage haunted house movie, ghosts mix with mental illness, but in the American Paranormal Activity films, a ghost isn’t as scary as a demon. AtrociousThe moral centre of these films, like in legend telling itself, is context dependent both geographically and temporally.  These films need their moral-centres to reflect what is anticipated the moral centre of the audience is going to be. But surprisingly, if that is true, then the moral centres of these films is not warning against playing with the supernatural, because you’re damned if  you do and damned if you don’t. The demon Toby in the Paranormal Activity films follows Katie specifically, whether Micah antagonizes him or not. The demonic presence in The Devil Within moves from Maria to Isabella Rossi, in what the filmmakers call “demonic transference”. In all these cases, including the Spanish films, the “kids” pay for their parents moral debts. The moral centres of these films seems to be, taken as an aggregate, the resentment of one generation for what the previous generation left behind; and are powerless to escape from it.


The found-footage films are an extreme example of legend-films, due to their mockumentary style of presentation. Currently, they are fashionable, particularly for horror movies (although there’s no reason why a romantic comedy couldn’t also use this style). However, I’d like to conclude by suggesting that the central question we need to ask of any legend-film is regarding what rhetorical devices are the filmmakers utilizing in order to convince us of the veracity of their narrative? We may ultimately discount the story as a fabrication – that’s not the point. What matters is that these filmmakers try in the first place to convince us that their tales are true.

Diary of the Dead

Works Cited

[Rec]. 2007. [Film] Directed by Jaume Balaguero, Paco Plaza. Spain: Filmax.

[Rec]². 2009. [Film] Directed by Jaume Balaguero, Paco Plaza. Spain: Filmax.

[REC]³ Génesis. 2012. [Film] Directed by Paco Plaza. Spain: Filmax.

Blair Witch Project, The. 1999. [Film] Directed by Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez. USA: Haxan Films.

Cannibal Holocaust. 1980. [Film] Directed by Ruggero Deodato. Italy: F.D. Cinematografica.

Grave Encounters 2. 2012. [Film] Directed by John Poliquin. USA: Twin Engine Films.

Grave Encounters. 2011. [Film] Directed by The Vicious Brothers. USA: Twin Engine Films.

Oring, E., 2008. Legendry and the Rhetoric of Truth. Journal of American Folklore, Volume 121, pp. 127-166.

Paranormal Activity 2. 2010. [Film] Directed by Tod Williams. USA: Paramount Pictures.

Paranormal Activity 3. 2011. [Film] Directed by Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman. USA: Paramount Pictures.

Paranormal Activity 4. 2012. [Film] Directed by Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman. USA: Paramount Pictures.

Paranormal Activity. 2007. [Film] Directed by Oren Peli. USA : Paramount Pictures.

Zombie Diaries 2. 2011. [Film] Directed by Michael Bartlett, Kevin Gates. UK: Bleeding Edge Films.

Zombie Diaries, The. 2006. [Film] Directed by Michael Bartlett, Kevin Gates. UK: Bleeding Edge Films.

‘Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied France’: History as Fairy Tale in Inglourious Basterds


‘Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied France’: History as Fairy Tale in Inglourious Basterds

I’d like to suggest, at the outset, that there are three key viewing positions for any “history film”; three positions a viewer may take in relationship to this kind of film.

Firstly, there is (let’s be blunt) The Naive Audience: the “Naive Audience” is entirely credulous. They see the information onscreen as absolute truth of what that historical period was like. Because they’ve seen, for example, Schindler’s List, they feel they know everything about the Holocaust.  This kind of viewing position receives all the historical information without any question about its veracity. After all, this person would argue, the filmmakers can’t say this is “Based on a True Story” unless it was, right?

Secondly, there is The Critical Audience. The “Critical Audience” views all films about any historical topic as suspect. Single errors (for whatever reason) will result in the entire films’ dismissal. The posts in the Coliseum in Gladiator were actually from the Circus Maximus and therefore the filmmakers didn’t know what they were doing. [I reviewed a collection of essays on Gladiator written mostly by Classicists and each chapter pointed that out to me!] In particular, the “Critical Audience” is worried about the “Naive Audience” response; they are concerned that there are people out there with “wrong information”. The “Critical Audience” congratulate themselves on their intellect and are concerned that those people who aren’t as smart as they are might believe the errors.

The third position is The Curious Audience. The “Curious Audience” is inspired by a film to know more about the topic. Maybe they’ll take university history classes. Or read a book by a historian. If their interest is peaked, they’ll read more. Engage in the topic. They will not let the film’s inaccuracies and dramatic licence deter them from their enjoyment of both the “actual” history and the films. Even if the “Curious Audience” doesn’t follow up on the history, they remain sufficiently sceptical to not “believe everything in the film is 100% accurate”; but still lack the overall cynicism to throw the film-baby out with the historical bathwater. Unfortunately, the “Curious Audience” tends to also be silent; or at least quieter than the “Critical Audience” who tend to be “shouters”.

The History Film  Audience

Thinking about Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film, Inglourious  Basterds we can situate much of the film’s criticism: the “Naive Audience,” who believes everything they see without question, will conclude that Hitler was killed in 1944 in a French cinema and that he was shot at close range repeatedly by a Jewish American commando. The “Critical Audience” responses are fury at such a crass fabrication of historical details and dismiss the film outright. They point to the “Naive Audience” wandering around like village idiots content in their “wrong beliefs”. The “Curious Audience” enjoy Tarantino’s fiction for what it is, and perhaps contemplate why Tarantino tells his story in the way he does.

The sad fact is, I don’t believe the “Naive Audience” actually exists. At least, I’ve never met “that guy”; “that guy” who is so incredulous as to believe any historical drama is a definitive and final word on a historical moment. “That guy” is an illusion, a chimera invented by the “Critical Audience” to justify their own self-congratulatory and sanctimonious superiority. I’m willing to suggest that most people fall into the “Curious” category, but we all know people who are members of the “Critical Audience,” and they’re usually pretty full of themselves. “Well, if you’ve read about the subject like I have…” The “Critical Audience” exists only to ensure that they are thought to be the smartest people in the room.

vlcsnap-2013-06-14-20h10m39s54I’m assuming we all fall into the “Curious” category; we shouldn’t be bothered by Inglourious Basterds historical inaccuracies, because Tarantino did not make a “historical film”. We know the film isn’t going to be historically accurate because of the title of the film’s first chapter: “Once Upon a Time … in Nazi-occupied France”.  By using the traditional opening of a fairy tale, “Once upon a time…” Tarantino outlines immediately the correct key in which to situate the film.

Back in 1997, Roberto Benigni attracted a lot of criticism for his Holocaust “fairy-tale” La Vita e bella; while Benigni’s film occupies a strange place between historically situated events and the elements of his fantasy, Tarantino allows no such ambiguity. Part of the criticism levelled against Benigni was that the fairy-tale mode was completely inappropriate for a film detailing an Italian perspective on the Holocaust. And in fairness to Tarantino, while the Holocaust remains perpetually in the background of the film, the industrialized extermination of European Jewry is never given centre stage.


The thing about fairy-tales is that everyone assumes they know what they are. Myths, legends and fairy-tales are all used mostly interchangeably with one another, despite actually being very different things with different functions. In order to understand how Inglourious Basterds works as a fairy-tale, we need to understand what fairy-tales are.

The American anthropologist William Bascom, back in 1965, published a simplified schema distinguishing the key three forms of “oral prose narrative” (as he called them): myth, legend and fairy-tale or folktale. Myths were a culture’s sacred stories, stories which defined the culture and explained the universe for them. Legends, on the other hand, could be sacred or secular, but unlike myths, took place in our recognizable world; there is a historical anchor to a legend that myths do not have. Myths, in contrast, take place in some kind of “otherworld”, before the world is as we’ve inherited it. Legends we can plot on a map. Rabbi Loew, for example, is the subject of legend because Prague exists and we can travel there to see it with our own eyes. In Prague is the Altneu Synagogue where, in the attic, the Golem is said to remain. The Garden of Eden, on the other hand, is a myth because there is no historical or archaeological corroboration for that story; it has been suggested that it probably referred to the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, but there is no hard evidence to verify the story in Genesis.   With both legend and myth there is a degree of belief involved; however this is not to suggest belief in the literal truth of the Golem or the Eden stories. Stories embody ideas and it is the cultural ideas that these stories embody which are important, not their literal truth or fictionality. Both legends and myths suggest a figurative truth: what does it mean to say that G-d lead the Israelites from Egypt? Did the Exodus ‘actually’ happen? The question is moot. What does it mean to say the Israelites are G-d’s ‘Chosen People’ and the discursive possibilities which open up with that question are what is actually more important.

Fairy-tales, on the other hand, are self-consciously fictional narratives; they are ahistorical and “a-geographic” – that is, they occur in a fictional time period in fictional places. The “Nazi-occupied France” of Inglourious Basterds is not the historical France during the Nazi occupation during World War II, but a fictionalized and idealized time and place. The magic words, “once upon a time”, like the Fairy godmother in Disney’s Cinderella and her ‘Bippity-boppity-boo”, magically transform a real place and time into a self-consciously fictional world.  Tarantino’s script effectively re-works the central story (in folklore, we’d call it a tale type) of Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen, and I’m unaware of much serious criticism of the earlier film for being fictional. Had Inglourious Basterds advertised itself as “Based on a True Story”, there would be grounds for dissent; but quite the opposite, Tarantino uses “once upon a time”. Parenthetically, it’s worth noting few films use “based on a true story” anymore and tend to use the woollier “inspired by true events” to allow greater creative freedom with the facts. So, it is worth repeating, it is not just that fairy tales are fictional narratives, but that they are self-consciously fictional narratives; that is, the tale teller and the listener agree what follows in the account will not be “true”.  How that signal is given is a fascinating study in its own right.

Before moving on to how one recognizes a fairy-tale film, it is probably worth noting that “fairy-tale” is problematic word, particularly in its colloquial usage. To anyone who has studied folk narratives (academically or as a fan) can attest to, very few of the so-called “fairy tales” contain any fairies at all; the term is a bit of a misnomer. The “fairy tale” is a 19th century invention where traditional and orally circulated fictional narratives were deemed only appropriate for bourgeois children; they lacked the sophistication of modern literature, but seemed to amuse the children and the child-like (i.e. the ‘peasants’ who told the stories).  Furthermore, folktales (i.e. the real ones collected orally from the “folk” and fill up archives around the world) were never intended exclusively for children. Fairy-tales for children is likewise a 19th century invention; mostly these stories told of adult concerns and adult fears. Scarcity of food, poverty, oppression, rebellion are not the topics of “children’s” stories, although they’ve become them due to Victorian bowdlerization and sanitizing the originals.

So “fairy tale” is seen by folklorists as a pejorative term. Bascom uses folktale, but recognizes that both myth and legends are also folktales, so the term doesn’t sufficiently denote this class of fictional narratives. Within Folklore Studies, the agreed upon term is the German Märchen, after the Brothers Grimm’s use in their Kinder- und Hausmarchen. Mostly I use “fairy tale”, simply because it is more commonly understood, even though problematic.

In theory, any fictional film could be considered a “fairy tale”, but indiscriminate labelling would lead to more confusion than clarity. At the level of fiction though, we can begin by exploring how and in what ways does a particular film recognize its own fictional mode? Ultimately, this is a function of visual rhetoric. Should a film try to convince us of its narrative veracity, then we are probably looking at a legend-film. If key images in the film convince us of larger, symbolic resonances, then the film may be trying to convince us of its mythic nature. So how does a third class of film narrative try to convince us of its fictionality? What, visually, does a film do to reassure us that what is being shown is not real?

Once the fictional nature of the “fairy tale” film has been identified, we next need to consider the purposes of that kind of narration. Most stories can be retold in different modes, in different genres. Why was this particular mode or genre chosen to convey those particular ideas? In other words, why tell a particular story as a fairy-tale? The psychoanalytic approach as espoused by Bruno Bettelheim, for example, posits that fairy-tales enable the child to become socialized. The horrific journeys fairy tale characters travel are psychological negotiations that children must make in order to grow into healthy and functional adults. Fairy-tales reflect children’s deepest darkest fears and Bettelheim warned that to deny children these fears risks potentially making them more susceptible in their adult years. Bettelheim notes,

In order not to be at the mercy of the vagaries of life, one must develop one’s inner resources so that one’s emotions, imagination and intellect mutually support and enrich one another. Our positive feelings give us the strength to develop our rationality; only hope for the future can sustain us in the adversities we unavoidably encounter” (Bettelheim  1999:269)

The theory, which is equally applicable to adults as it is to children, is that the violence and horror in vernacular fictions underlines and reinforces the idea that life itself, to quote Thomas Hobbes, is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. And children shouldn’t be protected from this awareness, but, through the mediation of children’s fairy-tales, where often it is the littlest that defeats the ogre and saves the day. For adults, although Bettelheim doesn’t go there, we can extend this approach to consider how horror movies (for example) condition and recondition adults in much the same way. Adults too need the ritualistic dramas of grown-up fairy tales to progress through the daily charnel house that is modernity.   But this is something that the folk have known for hundreds of years.

The psychoanalytic approach to fairy-tale analysis has been heavily criticised by social historian Robert Darnton in his The Great Cat Massacre. For example, Erich Fromm interprets “Little Red Riding Hood” as being about adolescent sexuality based on analysis of the story’s key symbols. For Darnton, the problem with this analysis is that none of the symbols Fromm states as particularly salient occur in the orally collected narratives, they appear only in their literary and reified forms (Darnton 1999:281). Bettelheim comes across even worse: Darnton criticizes Bettelheim for treating fairy-tales as if they were patients on the analyst’s couch, ignoring the realities of oral collections as consisting of variant texts, not literary products (1999: 283).

Whilst Darnton recognizes the fairy-tale is a fictional genre, he notes that this does not preclude it discussing real issues facing the cultures which tell those tales. Eugen Weber also noted that folktales “can tell us a great deal about real conditions in the world of those who told and those who heard the tales” (Weber 1981, 96).  Weber continues, suggesting that the human emotions of the folktale should be read as real emotions of the folk themselves. “A careful reading of the [Grimm’s] collection reveals a number of recurrent themes: hunger, poverty, death, danger, fear, chance …” (Weber 1981, 96).

So, to summarize then, fairy-tales are self-consiously fictional narratives, which announce their own fiction textually (in the actual text itself).  They are not the same thing as myths or legends. These were never intended exclusively for children’s consumption and originally spoke of adult concerns and fears. While we may be tempted to read these stories psychoanalytically, such analysis often makes unsubstantiated claims about meaning which need to be taken with a grain of salt. That being said, it wouldn’t be inappropriate to interpret these narratives as ritualistic dramas which put the world to right by its conclusion.Finally, despite the genre’s fictional mode of presentation, fairy-tales often discuss real (adult) emotions and fears.


inglourious-basterds9Inglourious Basterds

I remember sitting in my office, sometime around January 2009, when I first saw the trailer for Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and my initial reaction to the trailer was that if Tarantino achieves even half of what he promised in the trailer, this was going to be one of the greatest films of all time. When I finally saw the film in August later that year (after 8 months of anticipation), the results far surpassed my hopes. And I do consider this to be a remarkable piece of contemporary cinema.

I also recall that around that time I read a criticism of Tarantino’s work which accused him of “grindhouse elitism”; that his films were only for that minority of people who were as “cool as he was” and could understand all of his exploitation movie references. I don’t have a problem with this, because apparently I am as cool as Tarantino; and I can live with that. I was thinking about that criticism when Inglourious Bastserds started. vlcsnap-2013-06-14-20h11m11s119This title card came up on screen: “Chapter One: Once Upon a Time … in Nazi-occupied France”.  The next image was the one on the left of the screen. I immediately had a bizarre connection in my mind with the image on the right, from Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. vlcsnap-2013-06-14-20h15m41s25Somehow my brain went from “Once Upon a Time” to Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, but the image echoed Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The shot on the right isn’t even the first shot of that film; it’s the first shot of the second section of the film, where we are introduced to Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes (“the Bad” of the title). vlcsnap-2013-06-14-20h32m20s11That initial connection was further suggested by the next few shots; both Landa and Angel Eyes are seen arriving from a distance in similarly composed shots. vlcsnap-2013-06-14-20h14m52s28The heart in both sequences is also echoed in that both are tense interrogation sequences: vlcsnap-2013-06-28-12h01m50s156Landa talking to LaPadite and Angel Eyes with the Mexican farmer.vlcsnap-2013-06-28-11h54m27s34 This opening sequence of Inglourious Basterds has a very strong Spaghetti Western vibe to it; [play clip] like the Italian westerns, there is very little dialogue (which is odd for a Tarantino movie, and which he more than makes up for once we’re introduced to Landa) and the music is quite evocative. The music in question comes from another Italian western, The Big Gundown by Sergio Sollima, also starring Lee Van Cleef. The Ennio Morricone score also samples Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” giving this sequence not only a Spaghetti Western quality, but a German on too.

While the Western genre is often associated with myth, at least from an American perspective, the Spaghetti Westerns, in their appropriation of this American mythos, becomes much less ‘authentic’. For it to be considered myth, these films must embody the most significant of a culture’s beliefs. A similar dynamic of mythic appropriation can be seen in the work of the German author Karl May’s 19th century Western novels. And like May, the Spaghetti Western filmmakers, in appropriating these narratives, transform them into fairy-tale-like fictions.  Sergio Leone’s use of “Once Upon a Time” in the title of his 1968 western reflects this fairy-tale quality.

This fairy-tale quality of “Once upon a time” adds a texture to the film wherein Tarantino is free to refashion Europe in the 1940s anyway he likes. By opening the film like this he creates a discursive resonance for the film; we need to understand what the Spaghetti Western did to American mythology in order for Tarantino to translate it back to Europe. Without understanding that flow of transnational cinematic histories, the film would become nonsensical (which for many it was). Tarantino avoids suturing us into a historical recreation of Nazi-occupied France with his magic fairy-tale words. Effectively, Inglourious Basterds does to the “War in Europe” what the Spaghetti Westerns did to “the Old West”. And like any good storyteller, Tarantino’s game of references winks to the knowing cineastes in the audience.

Echoes of The Searchers?

Echoes of The Searchers?

Inglourious Basterds has two key storylines, both of which connect up at the end. In one, Shoshanna Dreyfus, a French Jewish girl, narrowly escapes being massacred along with her family hiding in the cellar of a local farmer, Pierre LaPadite. Shoshanna reinvents herself as “Emmanuelle Mimieux” (a double wink, referencing both the erotic Emmanuelle film series and American B-movie actress, Yvette Mimieux) who owns a Parisian cinema and is, as they say, hiding in plain sight. The second storyline takes its inspiration from the Robert Aldrich 1967 war movie, The Dirty Dozen.  In case any of you are unfamiliar with Aldrich’s film, here is the original 1967 trailer.

Clearly, Tarantino has based his “Basterds” on Aldrich’s Dozen

Picture1Inglourious Basterds is meant to play like the guys-on-a-mission World War 2 adventure movies, not as a recreation of a specific historical event. While the fairy-tale allusions in the first chapter may be, I’ll grant you, obtuse – you need to know your Spaghetti Westerns to see the connections – the second chapter is classic Hollywood fiction. While the actors in “Chapter One” may be largely unknown to American audiences, and the Jewish-American soldiers in “Chapter Two” might not be household names, I would imagine that most people would recognize Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raine. Some might even recognize Hostel director, Eli Roth, as Sgt. Donnie Donowitz. The casting of movie stars in movie star-type roles creates a fictional frame; while Pitt is an excellent actor (and very good in this film), we are always aware we’re watching Brad Pitt. He is too famous now to disappear in a role. Because we are watching Pitt chewing up the scenery in a self-consciously over-the-top performance, we are aware of the fictional mode of the story.

Picture2More traditional fairy-tales permeate the film as a whole. Shoshanna catches the eye of a handsome young German sharpshooter, Fredrick Zoller, who, for his valiant actions against the Allies, has become a hero of the Third Reich. The film based on his exploits (and in which he stars, playing himself) has just been made and Joseph Goebbels is in Paris to organize the film’s premiere.  Zoller insists that the film’s premiere be moved to Shoshanna’s cinema in order to attempt to woo her. With the highest ranks of the Reich due to be in attendance, Shoshanna conspires with her lover and projectionist, Marcel, to take full advantage of this opportunity and to burn the cinema down with all the Nazi brass inside. Tarantino reworks the traditional fairy-tale, so that the charming Prince has the ball at Cinderella’s place, and she uses the opportunity to extract her revenge for the enslavement of her people.

Picture6Col. Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz, in an Oscar-winning performance) takes on the role of the film’s Big Bad Wolf. Nicknamed “The Jew Hunter”, Landa has made his reputation on being able to root out hidden Jews throughout France, including being responsible for the massacre of Shoshanna’s family at the beginning of the film. Shoshanna is as much Little Red Riding Hood as she is Cinderella; always trying to keep one step ahead of this Wolf. For her big night, the night she destroys the entire Nazi high command, she dons a vibrant red dress to underline this connection. Tarantino, with seeming incongruity, has David Bowie’s title song from the Paul Schrader remake of Cat People playing on the soundtrack; a song conspicuously of the early 1980s, despite the faux-40s setting, further avoiding any chance of mistaking his intention for historical accuracy. Picture3Somehow, the Bowie/Cat People connection works: If Landa is the Big Bad Wolf and Cinderella is going to burn the ball down, who better than a Red Riding Hood Panther Lady to stop him?

Shoshanna’s story merges with the Basterds’ on this prestigious night; they too have infiltrated the premiere and also plan on taking out the Nazi big-wigs, including the Furher, who is in attendance. Neither knows of each other’s plot; neither knows the other at all. The Basterds were able to infiltrate the screening with the help of German movie star and spy for the Allies, Brigit von Hammersmark. Picture4In an earlier sequence, where VonHammersmark first meets the Basterds in a cellar bar in a small French town, what should be a quiet rendezvous turns into a massacre. In the melee, she loses a shoe. Just as Shoshanna is able to play both Little Red and Cinderella, Landa is able to play both the Big Bad Wolf and a (not so charming) Prince Charming, when he ascertains that the Allies’ spy he is looking for is the actress. In a scene right out the classic fairy-tale, Landa discovers the lady he’s been looking for by the shoe fitting (literally) the spy’s foot.


So What’s It All Mean?

I’m going to show a rather long clip – and warning, it’s incredibly violent. This is the Basterds in action, doing what they do.

Within the fairy-tale nature of the film, by setting this sequence in the woods, near an old bridge or aqueduct, the Basterds are like a vengeful seven dwarves. The music is, again, Morricone’s score for The Big Gundown. But in the middle of the sequence, intercut to fill us in, is a strange narrative segue into the story of Hugo Stiglitz. Picture7Hugo Stiglitz is the name of a Mexican born star of exploitation movies throughout the 1970s & 80s; who Tarantino honoured by naming this character after. The segue is made further strange by having it narrated by an uncredited Samuel L. Jackson, the font Stiglitz’s name is written in evokes a 1970s exploitation quality, and even the music segues into Billy Preston’s score for the Blaxploitation movie, Slaughter (starring Jim Brown, who was also in The Dirty Dozen).

Because we are never encouraged to read the film as historical reconstruction, we need to read it allegorically. By virtue of any fictional representation involving some degree of fantasy, understanding the unreality of the film requires consideration of that fantasy as an extension of what cannot be said effectively any other way. Fantasy gives voice to what cannot be stated otherwise. Inglourious Basterds makes manifest a re-empowering of historical Jewish victimization. It is hard to resist psychoanalytic interpretations sometimes – of seeing the scalping of the dead Nazis as symbolic castration in the name of revenge – but such an interpretation is hardly hidden, it is hardly subconscious. Tarantino’s film gives us World War 2 as we would have liked to have seen it; a revenge fantasy that recognizes Nazi anti-Semitism, but with no mention of the death camps.kucharski_a_poster

The French fairy-tales Darnton discusses, where in this fictional world, peasants win against wealthy landlords through guile and intelligence, where the smallest of children can bring down the mightiest of giants, are consciously inverted fantasies of their daily experiences. The problem with psychoanalysis (as grand theory) is that what is ascribed to be unconscious is usually very conscious. The folk were never fools, despite the number of fools in their stories. Contrary to Freud’s bourgeoisie, these peasant storytellers knew exactly what they were saying and why they were saying it. Any element in an orally transmitted story (folklorists would refer to it as a motif) could not persist across time and space unless it served a definite purpose. Otherwise, it would have been forgotten. What persists is what is important. So, as Darnton argues, to find out what a story means, often all one needs to do is ask the storyteller; they probably have a pretty good idea. If the storyteller is unavailable, because the story in question is from an archive, one needs to identify those aspects in the text itself which gives evidence to what the storyteller felt the story meant.

the_bear_jew_by_walkington-d36hf45In the same way that Tarantino constructs his World War 2 ahistorically and anachronistically, specifically through his use of music and other non-diegetic elements of the film, the horrors of the Nazi death camps, despite no specific references to them, is always in the background. The Basterds themselves, as a commando unit of Jewish-American soldiers, is recognition of this. When Donnie Donowitz, the Bear Jew, bludgeons to death Sgt Rachtman, he first asks of the sergeant whether or not he received his Iron Cross for killing Jews. The image of the Bear Jew in particular, in his muscle shirt carrying a baseball bat, is an image of Jewish physical strength and brutality to rival any Israeli Sabra. The carving of the swastika on the foreheads of those few the Basterds leave alive is a direct reference to, historically, how easily, after the war, Nazis were able to disappear or were even welcomed with open arms by the governments of the United States, Canada and many other Allied countries. If there really was an Aldo the Apache and Bear Jew carving swastikas onto the heads of all enemy soldiers they encountered, denying what one did during the war would have been much more difficult. As with all fairy tales, Inglourious Basterds puts the world to right.

This is the Face of Jewish Vengeance

The dénouement of the film is possibly the most controversial aspect of Inglourious Basterds. Shoshanna has locked all the doors to her cinema and taken her collection of nitrate prints behind the screen to be set alight. She has filmed a short insert which she edits into “Nation’s Pride,” the Fredrick Zoller film. Meanwhile two of the Bastserds, including Donowitz, are still in the cinema, with dynamite bombs strapped to their legs, trying to finish off their mission, even if it costs them their lives.  Warning again- this sequence is pretty violent

Having Hitler killed in this sequence, rather than the suicide in his bunker the following year,  while entirely ahistorical (and some critics have accused Inglourious Basterds of being “irresponsible” because of this), works within the film’s fairy-tale logic. History, in this case, is much less satisfying; this is how Hitler should have died, Tarantino seems to be saying. Donowitz not only shoots the Fuhrer at close range with a machine gun, we cut back to him, lying dead on the floor as Donowitz liquefies his face with bullets. Tarantino is not trying to rewrite history (another frequent criticism of this film), because the true magic of the film is its dialogue with history. Inglourious Basterds is not a replacement for history, and trying to dupe the “Naïve Audience” as such. The film only works if the historical record is equally known.

Shoshanna is able to have the last word, despite her actually dying in the projection booth after having been shot by Zoller. In many respects, with so much metacommentary on the part of Tarantino, one could posit the argument that cinema creates a kind of immortality. Much like the criticism of killing Hitler in this sequence, the true horror of Shoshanna’s vengeance is that she kills the Nazis in a Nazi-like method: by locking them in a closed building and setting it on fire. Shoshanna’s actions have an Old Testament aura of justice to them. Her vengeance isn’t just for killing her family, but in the ahistorical awareness of what the Nazis actually did to the Jews. Her face fills the screen-within-the-screen as it burns, literally sacrificed by fire: Holocaust. And as the smoke billows through the cinema, with the projector still running, Shoshanna’s projected face becomes three-dimensional and almost like the Great and Powerful Oz in the 1939 film.



Inglourious Basterds is a film which has been heavily pilloried for its historical inaccuracies, specifically killing off Hitler in 1944 in a Parisian cinema. But chastising the film for that is unnecessary; films like The Dirty Dozen, which Tarantino’s film is indebted to, were never made to be seen as anything other than fictions. As a fiction film, however, Basterds has many similarities with fairy-tales – not just fairy-tale motifs within the film, but fulfilling a function akin to fairy-tales. Namely, to offer vernacular entertainment which wears its anachronistic fantasy on its sleeve.

Perhaps the controversy is based on a cultural discomfort of publically expressing some of our violent fantasies at how we wished World War Two had happened. Like being caught playing soldier with oneself and then vehemently denying you were doing anything of the sort. I’m sure I’m not alone at having fantasied about what we’d have done if we had a time machine, or a machine gun, or a time machine with a machine gun. And the skills to use both of them. Playing Inglourious Basterds is a fantasy that partially expresses our own cultural frustration at feeling powerless to do anything in light of what we now know happened to European Jewry under the Nazis.  And is part of the frustration some people have with the film that a non-Jew so thoroughly realized our fantasy, almost as if he’d read our childhood diaries.

Finally, we also have to trust, and this is perhaps my most important point, that just as we know a particular film might be fictional, or only part of the story, or a poor interpretation of history, that we’re not the only ones with that information. We don’t have to be the “Critical Audience”; if we’re the “Curious Audience”, we facilitate discussion, not end it.


Works Cited

Bascom, William. 1965.The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives. Journal of American Folklore 78: 3-20.

Bettelheim, Bruno. 1999. The Struggle for Meaning. In M. Tartar (ed). The Classic Fairy Tales. London: W. W. Norton, 269-273.

Darnton, Robert. 1999. Peasants Tell Tales: the Meaning of Mother Goose. In M. Tartar (ed). The Classic Fairy Tales. London: W. W. Norton, 273-280.

Weber, Eugen. 1981. Fairies and Hard Facts: The Reality of Folktales. Journal of the History of Ideas,  42.1: 93-113.

Jewsploitation: Self-Stereotyping and Discursive Jewish Representation in The Hebrew Hammer

The Hebrew Hammer 6

Jewsploitation: Self-Stereotyping and Discursive Jewish Representation in The Hebrew Hammer

Jonathan Kesselman’s 2003 comedy, The Hebrew Hammer, advertised itself as the first “Jewsploitation” movie. The film follows the adventures of Mordechai Jefferson Carver (Adam Goldberg) – the titular “Hebrew Hammer” – who tries to stop Santa’s evil son, Damien (Andy Dick), from destroying Chanukah. While the film is a parody of the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s, its exploding of classic Jewish stereotypes enables discussion about Jewish representations and the nature of Jewish identities.

images (1)What is “Jewsploitation”? Obviously, it’s a semantic parody of Blaxploitation, but if that’s all it was, the word wouldn’t resonate as much as it does. Blaxploitation was the name given to the cycle of Black-oriented American genre films produced in the first half of the 1970s (roughly 1971-1975). Films like Shaft, Superfly, The Mack, Black Ceasar, Foxy Brown all featured predominantly African-American casts, many using African-American screenwriters and directors, and made stars out of actors like Fred Williamson, Pam Grier and Richard Roundtree. The “exploitation” element of Blaxploitation did not refer to the exploitation of a Black work-force on these films; it referred to the marketing strategy these B-movies used to exploit contemporary social issues. They exploited an audience’s desire to see something different while still working within vernacular cinematic genres, like gangster movies, horror movies, action movies, etc. The draw for an audience was seeing African-American characters living like everyday African-Americans and dealing with social issues the Black community faced on a regular basis – drugs, sex industry, institutional racism, etc. Blaxploitation was about seeing Black people leading Black lives, but within a vernacular (exploitation) cinema context – that is, movies everyday people want to go and see.

Does this work for “Jewsploitation”? What kind of film would Jewish filmmakers produce for Jewish audiences?  Actually, the YidlYiddish-language cinema produced by Joseph Green (in Poland) and Joseph Seiden (in the US) throughout the 1930s fit the bill nicely – they were unique, low-budget, genre pictures (mostly melodramas or musicals), for a niche audience that either experienced or was experiencing similar social issues and changes. The difference between the Yiddish-language cinema of the 1930s and Blaxploitation of the 1970s is largely generational: the appeal of the Yiddish movies tended to be to an older audience, while Blaxploitation appealed to a younger demographic.  In this regard, The Hebrew Hammer is more of the latter than the former; more youth-oriented films, than films produced for an older audience – as are a number of the films I’ll be discussing in this talk.

The generational division is a significant one; interest in bubbe-movies (if I can coin the term) by younger generations of Jews appeal out of nostalgia, not contemporaneity. Nostalgia for old world Jewishness is popular, but it is almost always backwards looking. Judah Cohen noted the recent emergence of a generation of North American Jews which embody this idea of ironic Jewish exploitation – Jewsploitation:

The ‘new’ Jewish culture aimed specifically at instilling a sense of Judaism where such expression had traditionally been absent … Often using the term ‘radical’ to describe their activities … projected images, attitudes and sounds that simultaneously celebrated and subverted popular Jewish stereotypes. Urban-dwelling Jews in their twenties and thirties served as the main target: those seen to base less of their identity on the Holocaust, who married later in life, and who portrayed a sense of alienation from both denominational life and the existing Jewish infrastructure (Cohen 2009: 2).

For a number of North American Jews of a particular generation, myself included, who have trouble identifying with either the two key identity markers in “Received Judaism” – the Holocaust & Israel – there has been an ontological crisis of how one defines oneself as Jewish in the modern world. Cohen sees this generation’s actions as “youthful reactions to what they perceived as an ossified, even self-effacing Jewish identity” (2009: 3).  Such reactions include the creation of a kind of “American Jewish ‘hipster’ culture … [which is heavily] associated with blackness (African-American culture)” (2009:3). This generation of “American Jewish hipsters”, according to Cohen,

… also evidence deeper aspects of cultural activity attributed specifically to the Jewish experience: most notably a publically negotiated, bipolar sense of Jewish masculinity, as well as an often overt agenda aimed at transforming perceptions of Jewish tradition in order to preserve them (2009: 3).

Cohen continues with the suggestion that this “hipster” culture is a direct counter to the Israeli Sabra image as an embodiment of Jewish masculine virility (2009:4). Parenthetically, the Israeli Sabra image was created specifically as a counter to the “Victim-Jew” image that emerged in the post-Holocaust world.

you_dont_mess_with_the_zohan_ver3In the Adam Sandler comedy, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (2008), Sandler plays “the Zohan,” a super IDF operative who embodies the virile masculine Sabra. Despite his legendary status in Israel, what Zohan most wants to do is move to New York and become a hair stylist. Zohan is able to achieve this, working in feminizing hair industry while still keeping his virile masculinity intact. Here’s the opening sequence to the film

Zohan is created to be the ultimate Sabra; cool even by Israeli standards. He is self-assured, sexy, equally capable of winning a tug-of-war contest against a bull and barbecuing fish on the beach (naked!). Despite his abdication to New York and the world of women’s hairdressing, that hyper-masculinity remains in place. As enjoyable as Zohan is, as a movie, Sandler is not part of this “New Jew” movement; his Zohan does not directly challenge the image of the Sabra as an embodiment of Jewish masculinity. Zohan may be an exaggeration, but the Israeli roots of that exaggeration are never challenged.  Adam Sandler’s comedy in general, and You Don’t Mess with the Zohan in particular, merely extend the existing ontological paradigms which define Jewish identity.

Discourse Analysis

Discourse analysis emerges as a reaction – within philosophy – to traditional Marxist dichotomies, like truth/falsity, as simplistic and limiting (Purvis & Hunt 1993: 479).  Rather than ideology operating to impose a ‘false consciousness’ on an unaware populace, ideology operates “discursively”. That is,

… discourses impose frameworks which limit what can be experienced or the meaning that experience can encompass, and thereby influence what can be said or be done. Each discourse allows certain things to be said and implies or prevents other things from being said (Purvis & Hunt 1993: 485).

Rather than two binary opposite positions, whereby one either agrees or rejects, a multiplicity of interpretive strategies to make sense of the world exist. However, each of those positions has their own ideological concerns. Far be it from “everyone having their own opinion”, an ascription to a fictional idea of freewill, discourse analysis recognizes that only a finite number of interpretive strategies are ideologically allowed to exist, and each of those have their own ideological rules and obligations. The ontological problem of Jewish identity, of being caught between the Holocaust and Israel, is an ideological one; that those are the only two paradigms possible for Jewish identity to attach. The “New Jew” hipster image is an ideological challenge to those limiting paradigms, despite it having its own ideological problems too (specifically its American-centric, New York-centric assumptions). You Don’t Mess with the Zohan does not challenge those ideological discourses, but is complacent within them.

Discourse analysis recognizes that identities, positions and their attendant ideologies have a tendency to shift. They are not unmoveable or unchanging. To be either in agreement with/or react against any particular position ignores the fluid nature of such positions.

Discourse is constitutive of social relations in that all knowledge, all talk, all argument takes place within a discursive context through which experience comes to have, not only meaning for its participants, but shared and communicable meaning within social relations (Purvis & Hunt 1993: 492)

The question one must engage with, in any discursive process, is to identify and understand the context of that discussion particularly as it impacts on both utterance and reception of those ideas. I may appear more conservative to a left winger than when I have a similar conversation with someone on the right. I may appear more Jewish in my interactions with a non-Jew than I am in a Jewish context (where I probably come off almost Presbyterian). This flow of discursive positioning demonstrates the greater complexity than to (simply) dismiss me (or accept me) as a “left-leaning-Jewish-liberal”.

In Stuart Hall’s “Encoding/Decoding”, he advocates a discursive approach to cultural studies, by which he suggests begins with the realization that media texts do not present reality, but represent discourses about reality. Hall’s example is a typical evening news broadcast. While today we may be cynical about unbiased and factual reportage on Fox News, the same interpretations could be made about the revered BBC.  We depend on our news programmes to offer truthful accounts of what is happening around the world. What we see on the news is “real”. For Hall, rather than a presentation of reality, a news broadcast is a carefully constructed, ideological text. When watching the news, we aren’t given any information about what is happening in the world as much as we are given a series of narratives which tell us what is acceptable to know about what is happening in the world. This is not to level accusations of bias against the BBC (although such accusations are definitely possible), because no news broadcast can avoid all biases. The news does not present “truth” but representations of truth.  The repercussions of Hall’s approach can be applied to any and all communication – face-to-face or mass mediated.

The same discursive approach holds true for racial and ethnic images in film and on TV. The “sociological communication” model, which was popular in late 1970s tended to see racial & ethnic representations in overly simplistic binary paradigms: a representation was either racist or not.  To say a film is racist, or avails itself to racist stereotyping, is to fall into this analytical trap. Hall’s advocacy of a discursive approach – the so-called “Cultural Studies” model – recognizes the importance of context and constructedness of these representations. A film – whether fictional or factual – is not presentation of reality, but construction of discourses about reality.

Borat-Movie-Wallpaper-001Consider the Sasha Baron Cohen film, Borat. Here is a film which puts a fictional character into the “real world” with the intention of demonstrating specific discourses about American culture.  To what extent are these sequences contrived? Were there many problems with consent for using private citizens’ images in a commercial film? Were they paid? Was there a poor production assistant who ran after people to get their signature on a release form after Borat had done something to them? To what extent are people playing to the camera? What Borat represents is an erasure of that assumed line between fiction and factual. To say this sequence is real but that sequence is contrived is a meaningless game to play with the film. What can we say about the film’s representation of reality, of a ‘real America’? Each sequence of the film opens the discursive possibilities for public debate.

In the “Running of the Jew” sequence in Borat, we see Borat’s feature for Kazakhstan National Television’s coverage of what is purported to be an annual folk festivity. Clearly this is an anti-Semitic sketch. And yet it is still funny (I find it funny, anyway). Part of the discursive analysis of the sequence is recognition that Baron Cohen is a practicing Jew; so the anti-Semitism is unlikely to be actual. And yet it is there. To see the sequence as a commentary on anti-Semitism, specifically playing with Eastern European/Balkan stereotypes of peasant anti-Semitism, is to open the film up for discussion. The comedy is exaggerated to the point of absurdity – Mrs. Jew laying her Jew Egg, which the children need to crush before the Jew-Chick hatches – opening up a commentary on cultural ignorance in Eastern and Balkan European countries. But that commentary is extended to demonstrate, later in the film, how ignorant Americans are of the world to be taken in by Baron Cohen’s character.

Jewsploitation as Discourse

Jewish humour as self-deprecating (and potentially reflecting self-hatred and masochism) comes from Sigmund Freud’s Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious written in 1905. This is not the place to outline extensively the Orthodox Freudian theories of joke-telling, but what interests me is the seemingly ubiquitous acceptance of his theories on humour. Jews tell Jewish jokes due to a profound sense of shame and hatred that they are Jews. There is also a sense that Jewish humour beats the anti-Semite to the punch, by denigrating oneself before the anti-Semite denigrates the Jew further. Nor is this the place to outline the problems, fallacies and sheer errors in these assumptions.  If Freud (and others) were right, then the “Running of the Jew” sequence in Borat reflects a profound self-hatred in Baron Cohen; that the grotesque exaggerated Jews in the festivity are how he sees himself unconsciously. And when we laugh at that sequence, we are recognizing its truth for us too.

The criticism of Freud and others I do want to focus on, however, is the assumption of a unified and coherent “Jewish character” or “Jewish Mind” which can be understood as applying to most, if not all Jews. Such an existence is of course absurd. But contextualized within discourse analysis we can see the fallacy in assuming a single meaning or character to Jewish humour: the joke either is anti-Semitic and self-deprecating or it is somehow psychologically liberating. That there are only those two options which are generalized across all Jewish experiences is nonsensical. Discourse analysis, however, enables a more nuanced and complicated response to sequences like the “Running of the Jew”.

Jewsploitation then is the self-conscious reclamation of the stereotypes and exploding them to absurd levels. Rather than simply evidence of Jewish self-hatred, quite the contrary, these films celebrate the grotesquery of the stereotypes in order to frame them as stereotypes. The “grotesque realism,” to appropriate Bakhtin’s phrase, of the “Running with the Jew” is its exaggeration.  The exaggeration is funny because of its construction as stereotype. And it is through the stereotype that the discursive dimension opens; the image lacks any direct referent in reality other than other grotesque stereotypes. The stereotype becomes as empty as the papier-mâché “Jew-heads”. In a later sequence, Borat and his producer Azamat stay over in a B&B which they didn’t realise was run by Jews.

The stereotypes expressed by Borat and Azamat in reference to Jews are juxtaposed by the lovely and generous elderly Jewish couple who run the B&B. Discursively, the anti-Semitism expressed by Borat and Azamet are less reflections of reality and more commentaries on, not just their reality, but also anti-Semitism in the larger world; racist perceptions of Jews, the film discursively suggests, are equally absurd.

Harold_And_Kumar_Go_To_White_Castle__001Another area of Jewsploitation can be found in the “Harold & Kumar” movies: Harold and Kumar are a Korean and Indian “odd couple” friends who mostly of smoke dope and eat at the White Castle brand of hamburger restaurants. All three of the “Harold & Kumar” films are written by the team of Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Scholssberg, and feature two secondary characters Rosenberg and Goldstein (Eddie Kay Thomas and David Krumholtz, respectively), who are likely based on the writers themselves. Rosenberg & Goldstein are slacker figures who also smoke a substantial amount of weed.  When we first meet them in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004), the apartment they share features some intriguing Judaica.

For the American Jewish ‘hipster’ that Judah Cohen discussed, Rosenberg and Goldstein subvert the normal stereotypes of Jewish characters: they’re dope smoking, sex obsessed, slackers. But it is the inclusion of the ‘girly’ mezuzah and shofar modified into a dope pipe that is particularly noteworthy. Both items (presumably manufactured for the film) subvert the norms of both artefacts. And Harold & Kumar 2yet, both the shofar and the mezuzah are at home in this Jewish household. The mezuzah in particular has retained its traditional/religious usage, despite being made profane with the naked woman.  The holiness of the shofar too is likewise subverted. And yet, both men’s heads remain covered. Seeing Rosenberg & Harold & Kumar 1Goldstein as discourse (including the intentional echoes of Shakespeare’s Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern from Hamlet) is to recognize traditional Judaism subverted potentially for greater relevance to those contemporary Jews who find it difficult to engage with the traditional “Jewish infrastructure”.

In the second “Harold and Kumar” movie, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008), our titular heroes are arrested as terrorists en route to Amsterdam. Rosenberg & Goldstein are brought in to be interrogated by Homeland Security due to their friendship with Harold and Kumar.

The folklorist William Hugh Jansen coined what he called “the esoteric/exoteric factor”. Esoteric, as most of us know, refers to insider knowledge; what a member of a particular group knows about that group. Exoteric, on the other hand, is a bit more slippery; it refers to what insiders think outsiders know about that group. This is not say exoteric is what outsiders actually know, but what insiders think outsiders know. Everyone with me on that? In the clip from Guantanamo Bay, NSA agent Ron Fox (Rob Corddry) thinks Jews are going to be easily interrogated if you throw loose change on the table. This is a Jewish perception (due to the screenwriters) of what (certain) American Jews think non-Jews think about Jews; this is an exoteric belief. It’s also such an obvious one as to be fairly uninteresting. Goldstein and Rosenberg’s collecting up the change at the scene’s conclusion is one of the key moments of cinematic discourse here; it opens the text up to question whether or not the film is holding up cultural stereotypes even as they’re being critiqued, or are they just being pragmatic, claiming Fox’s change, in partial recompense for the racist insult?

So far so obvious. There is another level to the sequence, however; a more subtle one which complicates both the film and its racial discourses. The fourth man in the room is Dr. Beecher (Roger Bart), a consultant working for the NSA who, throughout the film, is continually embarrassed by agent Fox’s behaviour. We can read this sequence (and the entire film) as American fears that the rest of the world views the US as if it were a nation of agent Foxes. Such is one of the film’s larger exoteric fears. Dr. Beecher’s presence in the scene seems to be a subtle recognition of an esoteric American view suggesting equal embarrassment by Fox. There may also be a not-so-subtle swipe at Fox News involved here too. Throughout the three “Harold & Kumar” movies, despite the slacker-stoner comedy façade, actually has quite a bit to say about race in contemporary America.  They are much more clever films in this regard than might be gleaned at first appearance.

In the third “Harold & Kumar” film, A Very Special Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (2011), Harold and Kumar meet up with Goldstein and Rosenberg in a New York White Castle.

Through Goldstein’s conversion to Christianity, screenwriters Hurwitz and Schlossberg are able to further play with the exoteric comedy in Jewish perceptions of how Christians respond to Jews. The exoteric factor is illuminating in an assumed refraction of cultural traits. Goldstein’s litany of Jewish attributes he is now free from as a result of baptism – Jewish neurosis, self-hatred – is a suggestive index of contemporary Jewish discourses. Suddenly, as a Christian, Goldstein can now go hunting, fishing and sailing, nor is he worried about bad investments. The gag that Goldstein still wants the 87cents for the bill, while a cheap shot, has a larger repercussion of whether or not it’s possible to erase one’s birth culture.  And like the two previous “Harold & Kumar” movies, Goldstein (and Rosenberg) still have their heads covered.


The Hebrew Hammer

Now we finally get to our feature attraction, Jonathan Kesselman’s 2003 film, The Hebrew Hammer. As I noted at the outset, the film is parody of the Blaxploitation films which were part of the American exploitation landscape in the early 1970s. Kesselman assembles a crazy quilt of Blaxploitation clichés and then replaces “Black” with “Jew” – hence the initial meaning of Jewsploitation. Here is how the film opens:

The first thing I want to draw your attention to are the words which first appear on the screen: “This film is dedicated to all the Jewish brothers and sisters who had enough of the gentile”. The message is a direct parody of the opening of Melvin Van Peebles pioneering film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song (1971), which read “This film is dedicated to all the Brother and Sisters who had enough of the Man”.


“The Man” in the context of early 1970s vernacular cultures, was the hegemonic forces which dictated racial and cultural inequality across the United States. In The Hebrew Hammer, “the Man” is replaced by “the gentile”, but that one gag is more discursive than first appearances might suggest. In a similar relationship to African-American resistance to white hegemony trying to “keep the black man down,” is the Jewish resistance to “the gentile” trying to “keep the Jew-man down”. From its very first moments, The Hebrew Hammer is opening up the discursive possibilities of “New Jew” cultural politics.

tumblr_md3h5lhT4b1qb9ambo1_1280In the flashback sequence to the nightmarish “Hanukkah Past”, well-meaning gentile teachers crudely mispronounce Jewish names and the Jew is made to feel like a complete outcast amongst his or her peers. I would imagine most North American Jews who grew up under gentile hegemony can relate to this sequence. This certainly could have described my memories of my own school days. Of course, when we think back as adults, most of our teachers (at least this was true for me) went to a great deal of effort for inclusion of all races, religions and cultures. And most of my friends from primary school were a racially mixed lot. So this sequence does not reflect a kind of historic reality to growing up Jewish in North America. What it does reflect is a strong emotional memory; of what it felt like to be culturally different and excluded from celebrating Christmas with one’s friends. From a more historical materialist perspective, of course any Jewish child dressed in Chassidic garb would have been going to a Jewish school to begin with; little Mordechai’s costume is more a reflection of how we felt others viewed us (the esoteric/exoteric factor).

The image of Santa stomping on the plastic dreidel (and I think I had that dreidel as a child) and flipping little Mordechai the bird as a segue into the “Hebrew Hammer” theme is a defiant rejection of victimization. Mordechai, as The Hebrew Hammer, becomes the protector of the Jewish community, almost like a golem.  Of course, the song itself is a parody of Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-winning theme song from Shaft. The song and opening credits function to illustrate the nature of the parody the film is developing.

In the film, Mordechai is brought in by the Jewish Justice League in order to prevent Santa’s evil son, Damien, from destroying Hanukkah. In this next clip, we are introduced to the Jewish Justice League.

In much the same way that Borat reclaimed Jewish stereotypes  and by exaggerating them rendered them relatively harmless, this sequence directly confronts another cache of Jewish stereotypes: Jewish media conspiracies, Holocaust documentaries to create good will towards Jews, overly sensitive to denigration, an absent “coalition of Jewish athletes,” Steven Spielberg, etc. Jewish actor Peter Coyote (and I’ll confess to a little Jewissance when I discovered he was a member of the Tribe) sports the Moshe Dayan eye-patch and tends to talk with a mouthful of cream cheese. By directly confronting these stereotypes, Kesselman is able to expose them as absurd despite the occasional kernel of truth. These stereotypes resist the simplistic lies/truth dichotomy.

In the next clip, Mordechai attends a meeting at the Jewish Justice League, but as security precautions, he must undergo various trials to prove he is truly Jewish.

The stages of these trials, both literally and symbolically, create a discourse about Jewish identity: he must have a Hebrew name, be able to list all the elements on a Seder plate, demonstrate musical aptitude, be circumcised and be able to whine better than both a Buddhist and “the Dying”. While, again, these are all crude stereotypes, as an aggregate they suggest a definition of Jewish identity. But such a definition is not unproblematic; nor does it conform to the rules of Halakhah. Jewish law is here the unspoken template to which The Hebrew Hammer is playing with by suggesting a more experiential and vernacular discourse on Jewish identity.

The final clip I want to show you is probably my favourite sequence of the film.

The sequence in Duke’s underlines the fantasy of the parody, being able to walk into a bar, order a Manichewitz (Black Label), and with a “Shabbat Shalom, Motherfuckers” teach a gang of neo-Nazis to respect the Jew. And where can I get a pair of those Magen David spurs? But the central aspect of this sequence in the film is the elderly African American man Hammer speaks with outside the bar. It is Melvin Van Peebles, the writer-director and star of Sweetback, and his line “they bled your mamma, they bled your papa, but they won’t bleed you” is the poetic refrain of defiance from the film. Elsewhere in the film, Hammer teams up with Muhammad Ali Paula Abdul Rahim of the Kwanza Liberation Front, played by Mario Van Peebles (Melvin’s son and a director in his own right). To have both Van Peebles appear in a low-budget, independent film with a niche market at best, speaks to the film’s credibility.

What makes The Hebrew Hammer such a significant film is the cultural legitimacy is its parody of Blaxploitation on the one hand, but more importantly the discursive analysis which opens up about Jewish identity and Jewishness.   


Jewsploitation, beyond the marketing hook for The Hebrew Hammer, are contemporary Jewish comedies aimed at American Jewish ‘hipster’ audiences. These are not movies for our bubbes. They open the discursive possibilities, or reflect those discourses already being heard from the Jewish margins, about Jewish identity. While the crude stereotypes may overwhelm some with their vulgarity, Jewsploitation is a recolonizing of those discourses about Jewishness. The vulgarities of the representations are to explode the truth claim by making them, and their presentation, absurd and therefore harmless.  They may be stereotypes, but now they are our stereotypes; we own them and we can play with their meanings.

For those of us uncomfortable with “Received Judaism” and the cultural associations that accompany those labels, Jewsploitation is an ontological playground where we can test our identities. It is worth noting, at least in passing, that following on from Judah Cohen’s work on Jewish hip hop artists, that the Jewsploitation discourses are gender biased – there’s not a lot of evidence for women’s voices here. I don’t believe women are excluded, but more scholarship needs to be produced celebrating women’s roles within Jewsploitation. If, as Cohen noted, Jewsploitation enables new masculinities to be celebrated, so to do new Jewish femininities need to be encouraged. I don’t know what form that will take, but that is because it is not my place to define what those will be. I’m excited to see their emergence.

Discourse analysis, despite its advantages over traditional Marxist dichotomies, still reflects ideological struggles. Hegemony only allows certain voices (and in part, this may be why there is a gender imbalance in the scholarship).  Jewishness as discursive process has an advantage over traditional paradigms insofar as it embodies the potential for a multiplicity of voices to be heard. Those marginal voices may have to struggle and resist aspects of Jewish hegemony, but those absences and ruptures, resistances and defiance need to be accounted for.  No cultural text can reproduce reality; it can (and does) represent commentary on/about our cultural categories of “the real”.

A few years ago, I edited a special issue of the journal Shofar (25.4, 2007) called “Cool Jewz: Contemporary Jewish Identity in Popular Culture”. At the time, I saw Jewish popular culture shifting and the essays in that issue reflected aspects of those changes. Now, six years later, I think I finally understand this phenomenon. The Jewish legacy many of us inherited made (some of) us feel awkward and uncomfortable. Our identities were pre-decided and we were never consulted. “Oh, you’re Jewish. You must be this kind of person or that kind of person”.  As our generation ascended (and I have no doubt that the various phenomena I’m discussing is largely generational) and we began to make our own platforms, developing our own voices and our own complexities. Would that I could be so confident in my identity to define what a Jew is.  For me, and I don’t think I’m alone with this, the fact that our identities are discursive, prone to shifting, is actually liberating. We can communicate with one another in an almost endless diversity of expressions. And Jewsploitation is part of these discourses.


Works Cited

Abrams, Nathan. 2012. The New Jew in Film: Exploring Jewishness and Judaism in Contemporary Cinema. London: I. B. Tauris

Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1984. Rabelais and his World. London: John Wiley and Sons.

Ben-Amos, Dan. 1973. The ‘Myth’ of Jewish Humor. Western Folklore 32.2: 112-131.

Cohen, Judah. 2009. Hip-Hop Judaica: the problems of representin’ Heebster heritage. Popular Music 28.1: 1-18.

Freud, Sigmund. 2002. Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious. London: Penguin Classics.

Hall, Stuart. 2009. Encoding/Decoding. In Meenakshi Gigi Durham & Douglas M. Kellner (eds) Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. London: John Wiley and Sons.

Koven, Mikel J (ed.). 2007. Special Issue: Cool Jewz: Contemporary Jewish Identity in Popular Culture. Shofar 25.4.

Koven, Mikel J. 2010. Blaxploitation Films. London: Kamera Books.

Jansen, Wm. Hugh. 1959. The Esoteric-Exoteric Factor in Folklore. Fabula 2.2: 205-211.

Purvis, Trevor & Alan Hunt. 1993. Discourse, Ideology, Discourse, Ideology, Discourse, Ideology … British Journal of Sociology 44.3: 473-499.

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