Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Mormonism-- Can it be a Third World?

Today has been a day of reading for me. I caught up with a blog thread on the Chicago Reader website where Jonathan Rosenbaum criticizes a NY Times review of Opera Jawa, an Indonesian film that is part of the New Crowned Glory series produced in the Third World. The link to the fascinating back and forth between (someone I suppose is) Mike D'Angello, Matt Zoller Seitz, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Jeannette Catsoulis is here.

This led to thoughts I've had previously about what is going on in 'Third World' cinema, how I would desire that honesty and fearless filmmaking for our theological culture, but it's in opposition to the 'mainstream' that financially and socially any film culture strives for.

I have to reconsider the term 'mainstream,' because what I really mean is 'Classic Hollywood,' as it currently controls most every film market that I'm aware of regardless of the country.

I remember a promotional film that MK2 did about Kiarostami where Michel Ciment spoke about 'Third World' cinema, saying that the modern world believed that everything had already been expressed so its cinema relied only upon post-modernism and meta-cinema. Only places like Iran, Thailand, Taiwan, and the so-called New China has things to say that were worthwhile.

In view of how backward the rest of the United States considers our world view to be (note a recent Church statement on this), perhaps we shouldn't just rush to point out the similarities and "build on common interests" with our BRT-ing, but perhaps we should be take a lesson from the power and vitality of Third World cinema and tell our stories drenched with
Mormon peculiarity, ritual and doctrine.

I later read an article in the current issue of Cinema Scope where Micheal Sicinski places our present historically quite well while reviewing the films of Micheal Robinson (none of whose films I have had the pleasure of viewing). I cite a paragraph to entice and encourage all to read:

"Michael Robinson’s work is at the heart of this new shift. In fact, the development of his film work could be seen as a response to this precise problem: How can experimental cinema retain its connection to history, remaining cognizant of the various crises of representation, without lapsing into nihilism? Or, for that matter, how is it possible to harness filmic effects in order to produce feelings of dread, longing, or even spontaneous release, without veering into ridiculousness or self-importance? How can we accept the failure (for now) of the grand designs of modernity and still operate on a plane of sincerity, commitment, and belief?"

If nothing else, that last sentence should encourage some to read: sincerity, commitment and belief. If we forgot everything else but those three terms, I think our films would be in better shape.

The whole article can be found here.


whitney said...

I think your point of perhaps rejecting hollywood/mainstream conventions in favor of a culture's own take on reality is really interesting. If there are differences in views/morals/culture, than it seems appropriate for a difference in style. It seems that third world cinema fails when it is trying to adhere to a certain mode of filmmaking that is contrary to what the film is trying to represent.

Trevor said...

ok, so I'll try to unload that last sentence: You're saying that third world cinema 1. is trying to adhere to a certain mode of filmmaking and 2. that when that mode is contrary to what the film is trying to represent, 3. third world cinema seems to fail. Also there is the assumption that third world cinema is essentially representational rather than being 'eastern' or presentational. I'm not sure that I follow all the way, but what I think that means is that the form or style of third world cinema is at times at odds with the content or cosmology of the film. (to say nothing of representation vs. presentation)

Do I understand correctly?

As far as 'rejecting hollywood/mainstream conventions', I would like to clarify. I believe that the heart of a 'Classical Hollywood' model is plot clarity traditionally, but commerce pragmatically. Both of those priorities seem to be in opposition to a scriptural tradition of storytelling or an eternal worldview. Part of the reason I choose third world cinema (though the definition is vast and complex) is that the goal is rarely plot clarity or financial gain. Rather, the goal seems to be either reification or questioning of cultural norms, expressions of societal dilemmas, or strivings for man's link with the divine. I am especially interested in the later, for reasons that should be overly apparent. I find that the last category shows up far more often in a third world model than a hollywood model and I find that the third world form suits those spiritual strivings more sucessfully than a hollywood model.

I find myself asking the question could that be, at least in part, to their formal deviation (or their blessed ignorance to) a hollywood form.

Kayela said...

I think I'm uncomfortable with Third World as an artistic designation. Third World as a term has an unfortunate etymology. It started as a way to talk about any part of the world that wasn't the United States or Russia and has become an unfortunate way of designating economic difference. Just a thought. Also, I get to come hang out with you guys in like a month.

Trevor said...

I am uncomfortable as well with the term, hence my use of "" those little helpers.

I think that the economic difference is the key, however to the distinction between Hollywood and this cinema I'm talking about.

I am uncomfortable with the fact that such a term includes both new Chinese cinema, all African cinema, and all South American cinema, which are all each as economically complex and ultimately disparate as can be.

Yet the fact remains that there are similarities stylistically that should be acknowledged, and surely have been more eloquently described by others. Please post links if any one is aware of them.

I did want to post this link for that series as described by the British Film Institute for the Peter Sellars produced "New Crowned Hope" series. so here it is:

I hope some of you find it beneficial

and yes, Kayela, we're looking forward to seeing you in a month.

green mormon architect said...

First time here on your blog.

"...tell our stories drenched with
Mormon peculiarity, ritual and doctrine."

I couldn't agree more strongly to this statement that this is what we must do. It seems at times that even the church is shying away from our unique contributions in favor of the mainstream.

I feel that any/all experimental arts will lead to amazing things if sincerity, commitment, and belief are present. Any failures along the way are worth the price. What artist doesn't go through hundreds of iterations before finding the answer?

So far my favorite lds movie portraying our "peculiarity, ritual, and doctrine" is New York Doll.

Thanks for the post.

Kayela said...

I like New York Doll too.
Before I forget, you should read John Berger's Ways of Seeing if you haven't. It's a little bit dated but a lot of what you say about advertising is in there.

Anonymous said...

Dear Friends ,,,, on an unrelated topic that requires our attention....
Recently a friend in our fold brought this "film" to my attention.
Her son apparently was sent this web link from someone.
this is NOT a joke,,,, I've been told that some people
question my intentions.
It's a movie clip (that has been recently released, or is about to,,, I'm not sure),,
anyway, it depicts Mormons as flesh eating ghouls, and it is just awful.
PLEASE don't go to this web site,,, please just make note of it,,,,,

On behalf of myself and my husband, and our Mormon friends,
I would like to make sure that young people are NOT subjected to this terrible conception of true faith.

please let me know if you are able to help.

regards, Betty Toms

Trevor said...

green mormon architect:

I really appreciate what you said about failures along the way. it strikes that Micheal Jordan/Abe Lincoln cord and perhaps more of us need to hear that right now.

Also: I keep thinking of formal peculiarities as well. New York Doll was delightful wasn't it. And it seems like the greatest first step in directions that we should be taking, thought I haven't seen much that has come out this year (and I know that there has been much, like Christian Vuissa's The Errand of Angels that sounds promising).

I keep thinking of Charles Burnett, however. I think that his To Sleep With Anger should be our Bible in a lot of ways for representing, or presenting, a culture as peculiar as ours.

It was funded and made possible in a great part by Burnett's MacArthur grant(or the half million 'genius' grant). So its quite a standard to live up to, but a standard we should be very interested in.

The only DVD version currently available, is from the British Film Institute, so it is region 2 unfortunately. But if for no other reason I would recommend buying a region-free player to at least see this film.

For those in Utah county, I know that the Orem Library has a copy because I kept it much longer than I should have.

Betty Toms:

I came across this interview that sheds at least some light on this topic i know nothing else about:

Thank you for your notice.

Brent Leavitt said...


I agree with this posting on Third World Cinema as a model for LDS Cinema. The term "Third World Cinema" I think comes from film history texts. In such contexts, it seems appropriate.

There are some very compelling stories and modes of storytelling that resonate with my personal convictions. Italian Neo-Realism, Iranian Cinema, and Fifth Generation Chinese Cinema are a few of the movements that seem to come closer to depicting who we are as Latter-day Saints than most of our Western works.

There is something to be said in the embracing of idealism in storytelling, as was so heavily dwelt upon by Elder Jeffery R. Holland in our recent Worldwide Leadership Training, which you have recapped. I am aware of one filmmaker, Zhang Yimou, who approaches his films from this vantage point and is able to craft powerful stories because he is depicting ideals in his films.

Then my attention was recently brought to an Iranian filmmaker, whose name I'm not familiar with yet, who strongly embraces the notion of being restricted by moral standards as a strength in the creative process.

On a different note, though the Hollywood model is chiefly concerned with profitability, if we look at it from an audience perspective, ought we not to be concerned with how well something is received? What good is it to make a film that no one sees? I'm not being superficial in this comment either as I have had a recent shift in perspective on this point.

Cinema began as a means of mass entertainment. At the end of the day that is still its primary function -- to entertain. But increasingly it has become a sounding board to declare the moral order of the filmmakers, especially in the mainstream "family films" venue. I think if anyone can bring it back to a true venue of entertainment, it will be us as Latter-day Saints adhering to our values.

Here's a few additional thoughts that I've blogged about along the lines of the Third World Cinema discussion:

Then on a personal note, Trevor, what's in the production pipeline? Will we get to see anything at next year's LDS Film Festival from your neck of the woods in Poland, is it?

Thanks for blogging,

Trevor said...


Your comment has had me thinking since you posted it. I don't know if we've met be I do remember seeing your name on some credits at BYU, I'm just not sure what.

Regardless you're welcomed here and your comments are appreciated.

I have written a bit about my starting point as far as "entertainment" goes here:

but I've decided that for the sake of clarity I should refine and articulate them in another post.

Its interesting that you cite Zhang Yimou (or is it the other way around?) as a Third World filmmaker since he has become something quite outside that circle to me. The budgets on his last three epics (which are not his last three films) must have out done most American non-action releases since Hero's success and the attention both Tarantino and Jet Li brought to the picture (not to mention the Wachowski brothers). Though no where is it written that budget is a determining factor in defining "Third World Film" I have previously taken it as a given. I'm also mostly acquainted with sources that start defining "Third World Film" in China's sixth Generation filmmakers as much of the greatest artistic innovation is going on as we speak. If you haven't, check out the Jia Zhang-Ke's (who it seem like every critic loves) films, many of which are available in the US.

The Iranian filmmaker could be either Majid Majidi (who was scheduled to speak at BYU due to his close friendship with Mary Farahnakan who teaches in the TMA department there, until the US government denied him entrance-- even though I know he visited Chicago two years earlier), Abbas Kiarostami (in my opinion the greatest living filmmaker by far. Godard said:"Cinema was born with Griffiths, and Died with Kiarostami"), or Jafar Panahi (whose 'relatively mainstream' "Offside" I have not seen, but have heard has done fairly well in the US), unless it is a student who has come from the Makmahlbaf school. In any case, all these filmmakers are more concerned with virtue and morality than the biggest or best American movies this year.

Though I plan to write more elsewhere, I must admit that the terms "mass media" or "mass entertainment" seem so closely linked to what I believe is the Great and Spacious Building, that any notion that our values could fit into such a structure seems faulty to me. Is that too brash of me? Have I been too close-minded? I do wonder, and I haven't ruled out discussion.

But you are right to ask what I'm working on. I have all these lofty opinions and high-minded goals for 'LDS cinema' when I've really done nothing substantial. I've finished several shorts and I'm waiting to hear back from the Directing programs I applied to, but I'm not on my feet enough to have something in next year's LDS film Festival. I have entered a few things this year, and I'm waiting to hear back.

As for right now I'm filming an 'art' film that could be ready for this summer's European festivals, but that would take a great deal of effort. Its a political parable about the European Union and what I feel its implications are for European cultures and identities. Pretty pretentious, and nothing worthy of the term 'LDS,' but I feel strongly about it.

Hopefully there will be more to come.

Brent Leavitt said...


I didn't mean to come across as condescending in asking what you've done. I feel that our convictions have to be in place before anything substantial can be produced.

I've something of a close affiliation with the festival nowadays thus my related inquiry. This year's festival wrapped in January. If you do finish your upcoming "political" film, I would encourage you to submit it to the festival before the December deadline. You may be surprised at the variety of content that screens at the LDS Film Festival. The festival itself functions more as a venue for filmmakers than for the audience presently.

Oh and Zhang Yimou, I was referring to pre-"Hero" works such as "The Road Home", "Not One Less", and "To Live"-- definitely a different scope than his later epics. I'm going to have to check out your other recommendations and get back to you.

Thank you,
Brent Leavitt

Trevor said...


thank you for your kindness, but you should know that I never sensed a bit of condescension when you asked what I've been up to. On the contrary, it was flattering. But upon reading your inquiry I chided myself for not being more up front. I think those are good things to chide oneself about.

On Zhang Yimou, I do think that he is one of the more charitable of the world's filmmakers now working, and the features that you refer to might well fit in the category we're discussing, but I've as yet not heard the term applied to the 'fifth generation.' While speaking of his less-epic productions I would like to take the chance to recommend his smaller features make since 2000 as well. I believe he's averaged at least one 'smaller scale' film a year since that year, on top of his awe-inspiring epics. His 'Happy Times,' which was executively produced by Terrence Malick, deals with some of 'Flying Daggers' themes more competently and movingly than the in later epic.

but on the LDS film festival, can you tell me why, perhaps, it is scheduled at the same time as Sundance rather than allowing any of the 'LDS' filmmakers or audience to take part in both? Who does know the answer to this?

Brent said...

The festival for the first two years was held in November. Christian Vuissa, the festival's founder, I feel has always approached things from a practical stand point. I believe it was in part a conscience decision to have it at the same time as Sundance because of the filmmakers, press, and whatnot that was already traveling through Utah anyways. While it does overlap with part of the Sundance Film Festival, Sundance does run a full week longer than the LDS Film Festival. An additional consideration in the shift to January was to move it away from the holiday season.