Alejandro Pedregal: Film & Making Other History: Counterhegemonic Narratives for a Cinema of the Subaltern. Lectio Praecursoria 17.6.2015

Alejandro Pedregalin väitöskirja “Film & Making Other History: Counterhegemonic Narratives for a Cinema of the Subaltern” tarkastettiin Aalto-yliopistossa 17.6.2015. Vastaväittäjänä toimi professori Ana M. Lopez Tulanen yliopistosta ja kustoksena professori Susanna Helke Aalto-yliopistosta. Väitöskirja on luettavissa osoitteessa http://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-952-60-6099-6

Film & Making Other History studies the ideas informing the creation of a potential counterhegemonic cinema, especially in the field of historical and biographical genres. It aims at demonstrating the important challenges confronted in any creative process trying to formulate histories through dialectical methods and about individuals that themselves were involved in questioning official narratives and history.

With a special emphasis on the contributions of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, the role of narrative appears here as seminal for elaborating an alternative proposal to what we have called historytelling in cinema for two main reasons:

– On one hand because narrative serves to shape public history socially as an intersubjective and interested realm of knowledge.

– And on the other hand, because narrative is also a mental tool used for understanding the world as a collective enterprise, as suggested by the constructivist views of cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner.

The study aims at clarifying the perspective taken to approach the questions of history, memory and their forms of representation, noting that these concerns are not neutral: narratives are also the result of specific conceptions of the world. As such, narratives can respond to different interests that go from sustaining hegemony and legitimating its social order to fighting and subverting it.

This work covers a series of questions related to the historical representation of the subaltern and the usage of biographical forms for counterhegemonic purposes. It tries to answer whether a genre like the biopic, which tends to condense historical complexities into the achievements of individual lives, often mythologizing them and used by the dominant culture industries to mould the public historical thinking, can be of any use for the historical narratives, needs and interests of the subaltern.

Thus, considering how hegemonic forms serve to legitimate the established order, we try to answer: can the subaltern appropriate these very forms and transform them into something new capable of driving its conceptions of the world and its demands? Or in other words: can alternative approaches to history make use of hegemonic forms, like the biopic, for representing the subaltern without being absorbed by hegemony itself?

Film & Making Other History rethinks the strategies that could be pursued to achieve this aim through the examination of cultural practices that have faced similar inquiries before, such as Latin American testimonial literature and Third Cinema, as well as an analysis of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. The research explores aspects related to the relationship between history and film, as well as the problems of representation in these fields, inquiries about memory and trauma, marginalized communities, Latin American history, cinema and testimonio literature, critical theory, and subaltern and colonial studies. The work borrows the notion of generic transformation, developed by British scholar Mike Wayne, as well as other reflections in similar direction suggested by authors such as Marcia Landy, Mariano Mestman, Michael Chanan or Thesome Gabriel, with the aim to rethink the potential of the biopic genre and propose a possible testimonial biopic as an alternative to the dominating narratives in the film field.

The study has been carried out using a practice-led methodology whereby reflections accompany the research and writing process of the film script They Call Me Rodolfo Walsh (Me Llaman Rodolfo Walsh). This script is based on a real character and events: the life and work of Argentine desaparecido writer and journalist Rodolfo Walsh, who was one of the foundational figures of Latin American testimonial literature. As the script is a tale about the past and a narrative construction of a life, selected and organized for dramatic purposes, while considering this work within the frame of my own activity as a screenwriter and film director, it became necessary to ponder on history as a system of interpretation and representation of the past, as well as on the methods and the varied narrative forms it can take.

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The focus in the fields of historical and biographical film practices is connected to the fact that this research is primarily orientated to these very realms of narrative and history-making. The interest in these practices is related to the massive effect that they have in forming, moulding, manipulating and legitimating our public historical thinking, as constant controversies around these types of productions prove.

The research is presented in two parts. The first is dedicated to inquiries, obstacles and demands related to the realms of interpretation and representation of history and memory in general, with a particular focus on how these have been managed in the film field. This part also includes the main notions that serve as the ground over which the study is built, with a special focus on Gramsci’s contributions regarding hegemony and the subaltern, common sense and good sense, and the role of the intellectual in forging the realms that are in social dispute. Among other aspects, this part also examines the contributions of cultural critic Walter Benjamin regarding the shifting of the historical subject, and studies radical historian Howard Zinn’s thoughts on the role of the historian as citizen, underscoring the possibilities of history to incite active commitment to social change.

In this first part, we also explore the insights of relevant authors like Marcia Landy or Robert Rosenstone in the field of the historical film, and Geroge Custen and Dennis Bingham in the field of the biographical film, with their links to the reflections of Gramsci and Benjamin, but also to others like those of Theodor Adorno and Leo Löwenthal regarding the alienating role of culture industries, and Roland Barthes concerning the formation of myths in contemporary media culture.

The second part of the study is dedicated to cultural practices and interventions that have proposed alternative ways to manage those very questions and the difficulties faced in their elaboration and re-elaboration of counterhegemonic forms of representation, transcending the taken for granted boundaries of dominant narratives. This part focuses on the foundations and experiences of Latin American testimonial literature or testimonio and Third Cinema, first as part of the New Latin American Cinema Wave, before being expanded as a revolutionary film practice. In this part we also analyse the phenomenon of Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X as a possible counterhegemonic biographical form.

Studying the contributions of these practices to the cultural expression of subaltern sectors might inspire those streams seeking for alternative historical and biographical representations today within a tradition of dialectical practice and theory. For this purpose, this second part takes a series of relevant study cases that serve to exemplify similar goals, such as the reflections of writers like Julio Cortázar or Eduardo Galeano, or the statements of filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino after their seminal film The Hour of the Furnaces, and the aesthetical proposals of Cuban filmmaker Tomás Gutiérrez Alea. In this part, the research also introduces the relevance of Rodolfo Walsh and his connection to the central themes of it, tracing links between his figure and the aims of the proposal.

Through the examination of these practices, the work explores the dialectics between hegemony and the subaltern in order to elaborate the theoretical framework for the proposal. It is through these analyses that we address the question of narrative transformation, with a special emphasis in the realm of genres, as agreed conventions that serve for both cognitive and communicative purposes. Thus, considering the massive potential of films in this regard, and the role of genres in channelling this powerful features, we could argue that generic transformations can serve to alter the way audiences construct their conceptions of the world, and, by extension, the dominant narratives in society.

As this study is intimately linked to the research and writing process of a script based on a historical character, it has been necessary to study not only the limitations of the historical film in this matter, but also the problematic characteristics of the biopic, which might prevent the emergence of alternative forms of historical consciousness. It is also because of this, that we embrace the notion of generic transformation, as introduced by Mike Wayne, but inherent to the practices under study, and we apply it to these fields of film practice. And thus, in order to expand it to the realms of the biopic, the study suggests a possible label for the change we aim for: testimonial biopic.

Therefore, testimonial biopic is a proposal for generic transformation inspired by alternative narratives of historical and biographical representation coming from counterhegemonic cultural practices. We must caution that this term does not aim to describe previous practices or the works of others, or become a formula or schematic recipe. Instead, it solely appears regarding the work done on the script They Call Me Rodolfo Walsh.

The term makes an explicit reference to Latin American testimonio as a narrative of the subaltern to underscore the shared concerns on historicity, politicisation, critical commitment and cultural specificity, something also common to Third Cinema and other experiences we have seen. Thus, the specific mention of testimonial literature in the label is also a tribute to the work of Walsh, as the precursor of the genre and the central character of the script attached to this proposal, because studying his life and work originally inspired the whole project.

Nevertheless, as the script does not exist as a film yet, the use of the label here is more a suggestion or an inspirational tool than an empirical statement. For this reason, we do not focus on the aesthetical or stylistic features in connection to testimonio or Third Cinema when describing the testimonial biopic, but instead on its methodological aspects concerning three fields of commitment: investigative, critical and political commitment.

Through this proposal and method, we intend to develop a counterhegemonic plan of action when dealing with inquiries similar to those governing this study. Testimonial biopic is then proposed as a narrative strategy to bring historical figures from the subaltern sectors -and very especially those whose work was notably significant in their organic commitment to social change- to the knowledge of wider popular audiences.

We do not propose a constitution of a genre or subgenre from the scratch. On the contrary, considering the values of the existing genres and the aspects that have made them popular and successful for their social goals, it is a must to attend at their positive elements in this regard. Only by dialoguing with those, as well as with their limitations critically, we are able to build an alternative proposal of biographical representation that answers the needs of the subaltern.

Therefore, as a plan of action committed to a wider political agenda of social change, testimonial biopic offers to the historical and biographical film practices a program to rethink its commonsensical forms and give a qualitative leap towards, in Gramsci’s terms, a new good sense, where official history is confronted and the memories, aspirations, struggles and references of the subaltern can get represented.

 

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