Friday, August 31, 2012

Great Ethnographic Film: Cuba Sentimental

Image borrowed from Cuba Sentimental web page.

Recently I had the pleasure of participating in the Anthro-Film Laboratory (vol. 4) organized by Itsushi Kawase in Osaka. The main event was the showing of the film, Cuba Sentimental by Sachiko Tanuma. A work in progress film on the journey and reception of Cuba Sentimental was also showed. Here is the film synopsis (from the Cuba Sentimental web page):  

Sachi, who lived in Havana for her anthropological study between 2002-2004, sees all her Cuban friends leaving the country to anywhere they can -- Spain, England, Chile, the United States. Visiting them in their new homes, and visiting their relatives and friends still in Cuba, the film explores how Cubans feel about leaving their country, a place that has been known for its utopian dream.

The second film was mostly a reflexive exercise blending comments from viewers, filmmakers and subjects of Cuba Sentimental. It also exposes more of the personal ties the filmmaker has with her subjects. I really like Cuba Sentimental a lot, and I will focus on that film although I might also react to some comments from the second film as well.

The film's main theme seems to be immigration as is follows people's immigration and integration into their new societies after leaving Cuba. I would argue that the film wonderfully illustrates globalization. We are treated to more than a glimpse of the local setting of Cuba - in fact, we see much that western media sources have failed to show. And then we see people moving to different parts of the world and how they go about living their new lives. It was interesting to note - and very telling as well - that the person who had the most difficulty integrating in terms of career, language and personal life was the subject who immigrated into the United States. Other subjects who went to countries in Europe and South America were able to find employment in their professional and academic fields and even enter jobs at prestigious institutions - some were even employed in government positions.

One commenter in the second film questioned whether the film was really about immigration at all - he was more impressed with the subject themselves, suggesting that the theme was really friendship, a theme that most people could identify with. I agree that the film does a great job of showing us Cuban individuals who make up a close circle of friends. But this quality should not take away from the globalization/immigration issues. Anthropology looks at globalization in terms of the lives of real people - how are real people affected by local and global forces. That we get to know and care about the subjects of the film is really a result of the long and quality fieldwork of Tanuma.

Tanuma's fieldwork and filmmaking are muli-layered. We see the group of Cubans through Tanuma's eyes/camera; we see her showing her film to the subjects themselves in their new locations and getting their reactions; we see her sharing the filmed reactions of subjects in one location to subjects in other locations. In fact, Tanuma never seems to turn her camera off. This creates a truly participatory methodology that generates multiple perspectives and reactions.

This work is Tanuma's first attempt at filmmaking. Admittedly some of the shots and editing are not so professional. But we can easily forgive these technical aspects because of her quality of presentation style. Still these aspects bring to light the challenges that visual anthropologists have in the field. How can the visual anthropologist observe, participate and film all at the same time? How can the visual anthropologist capture real life in demanding settings and make a good composition at the same time? These are valid questions for discussion. A partial answer might be that the visual anthropologist learns to deal with these challenges and improves with experience. Tanuma will certainly improve in technical areas but not at the expenses of her quality presentation style (I hope). Whatever the future holds for Tanuma, a common reaction to her film is that viewers want to her to make more films.

Many thanks to Sachiko Tanuma for sharing her work. And thanks to all the participants of the Anthro-Film Lab - it was a great venue to see the films and have fruitful discussions. I look forward to more...

For more information about Tanuma and her work, check out her web site.


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