Saturday, August 29, 2009

Adam Hartzell: Say My Name

Fall is almost upon us. We movie-lovers know it because Johnny Ray Huston's rep film roundup for the SF Bay Guardian's Fall arts Preview is out, with tons of clickable links to most of the major and minor film festivals, repertory series, and special events of the season. But August isn't quite over yet, and this weekend has at least a few Frisco film events worth coming in from out of the heat. Huston's own Beyond ESPN series at the Yerba Buena Center For the Arts wraps up tomorrow with Football as Never Before, a proto-Zidane film featuring the Manchester United legend George Best. The other night I saw there Visions of Eight, a lovely documentary of the 1972 Munich Olympics directed by Kon Ichikawa, Arthur Penn, Milos Forman, and five others. The series was written up by Adam Hartzell for sf360.

More recently, Hartzell wrote up a preview of the focus on Kim Longinotto at this weekend's Women Make Movies Film Festival for that site; he'd also written on the documentary filmmaker here a few years back. And now, I'm very pleased to present his write-up on another documentary playing tomorrow at the Women Make Movies festival:

Sadly, for those outside of the Hip Hop Nation, juxtapositions of women and Hip Hop are more likely to lead towards thoughts of booty-shaking than rhyme-making. Nirit Peled’s documentary Say My Name, (screening at the Roxie Theatre on Sunday August 30th as part of the Women Make Movies Film Festival) should correct that viewpoint for the casual viewer. But it provides an equal service for those heads with full Hip Hop cred. With so many female MCs dropping knowledge and dope lyrics one after the other, even the most diehard fan’s understanding of Hip Hop can’t help but be changed. Hip Hop is not just a man’s world. Like so much else in this world, men just dominate it. Say My Name is a call for recalibration of the control masculine rhetoric has within and around Hip Hop.

As Tricia Rose has noted in her latest book The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop ...And Why It Matters, Hip Hop does need to reroute where it has been headed. The misogyny (which walks intimately hand-in-hand with homophobia) is one of the areas on which Hip Hop needs to come correct. The most infamous incident of this is the image of the credit card being swiped through a dancer’s thronged buttocks in the video for “Tip Drill” by Nelly. (A clip of which makes a brief appearance in Peled’s documentary.) This video sparked a protest at the historically black Spelman College where Nelly was coming to support a bone marrow registry drive as part of his charity work to help leukemia patients. Nelly cancelled his appearance rather than accept a meeting with campus leaders to face the music of the critiques of his music. Beyond such visuals as in “Tip Drill”, there are lyrics of equal disrespect. Rose advocates for a redirection away from the nihilistic lyrics while also asking us to keep in mind that Hip Hop is not alone in purveying such societal ills. As Michael Jeffries notes in his contribution to Home Girls Make Some Noise: Hip Hop Feminism Anthology (HHFA), the mainstream shorthand of Hip Hop as “...the prime criminal in the business of pop cultural female misogyny, all but excus[es] other musical genres and cultural products.” And in spite of the misogyny easily found in the videos late at night on BET, there are women MCs trying to reframe the game so that women have entry points into Hip Hop other than ass first. Through the likes of female MCs speaking for themselves in Peled’s documentary, “ ...Young women fans”, according to Eric Darnell Pritchard and Maria L. Bibbs in HHFA, “are finding that there is a place for them in Hip Hop culture, and they do not have to settle for the role of a male rapper’s sex object or helpmate in order to have a presence.” We need to be “turning up the noise”, as Jeffries says, on the women Hip Hop artists being dampened by the nihilistic, which is exactly what is accomplished in the documentary Say My Name.

The reach in this documentary is impressive considering Peled is from Holland. Although interviews with certain luminaries are missing, (Queen Latifah and Missy Elliot being the major lacunae), Peled was able to provide ample time for elder stateswomen such as MC Lyte and Monie Love. These are women whose lyrical skill was matched with a tonal texture that made an imprint on this writer’s young mind growing up. Particularly intriguing is the section on Roxanne Shanté, the rapper brought in to recite the lyrics to the infamous response record to UTFO’s single “Roxanne, Roxanne” entitled “Roxanne’s Revenge”. (This was the ‘unofficial’ response record. UTFO produced their own response called ‘The Real Roxanne’.) The ethical disagreements over reciting lyrics written by others, the place of verbal battling in Hip Hop, and the disposability of some players in the industry all are underscored by the saga of this Roxanne. Erykah Badu is one of the more recent Hip Hop luminaries whose commentary serves the documentary very well. She has some poignant things to say about motherhood and the female beauty ideal. As if hearing Marlo David Asikwe (in HHFA) when she laments that black women Hip Hop artists do not attend to “the mothering body” with the same level of attention as the sexual body, Peled brings attention to the mothering Hip Hop body. This segment is quite significant regarding how motherhood can inspire (as well as disrupt) the careers of these female MCs.

Regional Hip Hop genres are also represented, from the rapid fire lyrics of British Grime to the socially conscious creed of Detroit’s Invincible. (The presence of Invincible also allows for a lesbian voice, although whispered at those familiar with Invincible rather than shouted out explicitly in the documentary.) When Peled represents the ‘Dirty South’ with the Georgia Girls, her footage of them performing in a high school gymnasium touches on the significance of high schools to the Atlanta variant Hip Hop. “...The high school”, notes Jocyelyn A. Wilson in HHFA, “works as a key environment for developing relationships that contribute to the strong network ties of the southern hip-hop community of practice.”

So much is touched on in a short 73 minutes. Aspects I haven’t mentioned include how the ghetto environment is a point of inspiration, but also something that can hold some artists back. And being held back is part of the overarching theme of Rose’s powerful critique The Hip Hop Wars. The harmful trends in Hip Hop, the misogyny and other forms of violence and nihilism, are holding back those who most need to be propelled forward. One way to propel forward is through documentaries such as Peled’s where women are launched into the discourses of Hip Hop rhetoric, negotiating their own terms. As Pritchard and Dibbs explain, “...As for many youth hip-hop is a clear way of making meaning and receiving/imparting knowledge in a way that is relevant to their cultural, economic, social and political realities.” To turn away from the enticing beat is to also turn away from the most vital means youth have presently to express themselves. Say My Name is a desperately needed call and response to reclaim a female space for Hip Hop. Bring the noise, indeed.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

24 City

Rejoice! The new Pacific Film Archive calendar for September & October is available online. Included are series focusing on undershown auteurs William Klein, Ermanno Olmi, and Julian Duvivier (I've seen one film apiece from these gentlemen, each quite solid). The Alternative Visions series starts back up again on Tuesdays, and is joined by tributes to avant-garde heavyweights Bill Viola and Robert Beavers, both of whom will appear in person, the latter in conversation with the legendary critic P. Adams Sitney. There's also a massive set of British crime films, a few titles overlapping with the ones being brought to the Castro Sep. 11-16, but you'll have to attend both venues to see them all.

Those may be the most high-profile series of the season, but the upcoming months will also be dotted by smaller series, one-shot events, and the reliable "non-series" A Theatre Near You, which returns director Jia Zhang-Ke's film 24 City to the site of his extensive retrospective one year ago. 24 City is also playing the Camera 3 in San Jose this week, inspiring me to dust off an unpublished capsule I wrote earlier this year after seeing the film at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (well before the director's controversial decision to pull out of the Melbourne Film Festival this summer). Here it is:

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As Chinese director Jia Zhang Ke's stature on the international film festival circuit has increased with each release, his films have blurred the line between fiction and documentary in ever more intriguing ways. Perhaps because, as his auteur status has attracted attention from a censorious government that once officially disapproved of films like Xiao Wu and Unknown Pleasures, it's these frictions that provide Jia's best outlet for critique.

Jia's latest film 24 City takes the form of a documentary about the dismantling of a munitions factory code-named "420" in pre-earthquake Chengdu, to make way for a ritzy condominium complex. Interviews with former workers, conducted mostly in long, static shots, join together in an oral history going back generations. The clanging and hammering sounds of the factory's final, self-destructive task are often heard in the background. Sequences are bridged together by brief skits or by city-poems. Songs re-appropriated from films such as John Woo's 1989 The Killer and Peter Chan's 2005 Perhaps Love underscore the connection between recent Chinese history and its pop culture mirror.

But documentary conventions are questioned by the director's decision to have actors play interview subjects. Is the factory saleswoman who recalls how workplace gossip quashed her first love affair a Joan Chen look-alike, as she says she is? Or is she actually Joan Chen? (answer: yes.) By crossing the imaginary boundary between "real" and "constructed" cinema, Jia turns nostalgia into barely-veiled dissent, and creates a testimony filled with contradictions appropriate for our modern age.