Anthropological Questions


by Dean Wilson

Anthropological Questions for Vietnam in the New Media Environment of Transnational Co-production.

Over the last four years city-dwellers in Vietnam have grown accustomed to seeing movie posters and other marketing materials for imported films printed in the Vietnamese language. Behind-the-scenes cable television programs on Cinemax, HBO and Celestial Movies are subtitled in Vietnamese, along with a fast-growing roster of American, Chinese, and Korean titles in movie theaters. Local Vietnamese distributors are now experimenting with multiple-voice soundtrack recording in the Vietnamese language with voice actors for animated feature films, marking a significant departure from the single-voice over-dubbing that still dominates foreign television broadcasts and locally-owned movie theaters. MegaStar Media is building a chain of multiplex cinemas with local partner Phuong Nam Corporation; while representatives from Time Warner regularly consult the Vietnamese government on copyright laws. With the addition of new cable television services, growing DVD imports, and expanded internet options that include an array of online games, many licensed from Korea and “localized” with Vietnamese language functions, the new media environment has truly arrived. As foreign investment in Vietnam soars with WTO accession, the deluge of foreign content packaged for Vietnamese consumption provokes daunting questions for local media content producers and cultural anthropologists.

In other countries, transnational co-production has taken a new turn with the recent global marketing strategies of media giants like Sony and Universal Pictures. What might these trends mean for Vietnamese culture and its representation on film? Do localized computer games represent part of a Vietnamese media culture? These questions should be on the minds of contemporary anthropologists whose methods and tools have much to offer the domestic film, television and digital media sectors of Vietnam. Now more than ever anthropological models should be applied to new media studies in Vietnam; not only in support of a healthy equity-based economy, but more immediately to ensure the continuity of Vietnamese culture in the midst of invasive global competition.

The commentary below focuses on film production because it is a concrete example of cultural representation in new media venues and it requires short and longer term institutional frameworks that are accessible to established anthropological practice. Rather than calling for specific actions, I suggest that visual anthropologist Jay Ruby’s concept of reflexivity and Jean Rouch’s ideas about “shared anthropology” and participation are relevant in view of recent co-production trends, most interestingly directed toward the creative potentials of story-telling.  My purpose is to encourage anthropological research in the film sector which could fruitfully apply to other domains of the new media environment.

Symbolic capital

Symbolic and structural anthropologists have long held that culture is a symbolic system, and this characterization has been usefully shared among other social sciences as well as the disciplines of semiotics, film theory, and perhaps most significantly, marketing and advertising. Symbolic capital is a concept developed by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu that reflects the power of people or institutions whose views are recognized and reproduced in the public discourse. Instead of a purely economic issue, although Bourdieu acknowledges the power of money, symbolic capital is more a question of cultural production, and I think the concept is useful when considering the nominal hegemony of the Hollywood system in the world today. As financial assets move from one culture to another in the form of transnational investments, how do culturally specific symbols change? How are foreign symbols absorbed into local cultural practices? How are they shared? What is at stake when the symbolic capital of some cultures is recognized globally at the expense of others? How are local institutions, like banks, schools, businesses, families, or labor groups affected by the symbolic capital of foreign cultures through large-scale media projects? These are questions that cultural anthropologists in Vietnam may begin to ask in the new media environment of transnational co-production in East Asia.

The year 2007 was an eventful one for transnational co-production. At the Berlin International Film Festival in early February the new Co-Chairman David Linde of Universal Pictures, one of the top five Hollywood studios, gave a speech emphasizing a “new film economy” based on international releases. He announced Universal projects with producers based in seven different countries. While other major studios like Disney were cutting back production, Linde said Universal would be getting more involved in production by investing in individual filmmakers who understood local audiences. Three months later at the Cannes festival Universal announced a five-film co-production deal with three acclaimed Mexican directors, signaling an aggressive move toward Spanish language audiences in Mexico and Latin America. These projects would be managed and distributed internationally through Universal’s “specialty” division Focus Features, the subsidiary Linde created with his partner James Schamus in 2002. Shortly thereafter, in August, The Weinstein Company (TWC), based in New York, launched an Asian film fund worth 285 million US dollars for co-productions with local partners. The company targeted 21 theatrical releases and 10 direct-to-video films, with a statement emphasizing the global marketplace. Like Universal, TWC was enthusiastic about “sharing the immense talent and beautiful stories” of local filmmakers with audiences around the world.

The following month, students at the University of Southern California’s (USC) School of Cinematic Arts, the top film school in America, were treated to a seminar by former graduate Ignacio Darnaude, now a marketing executive at Sony Pictures, in September 2007. He began by saying that four foreign films had grossed over 45 million US dollars at United States cinema box offices in 2005, and that in 2006 the number of films at this level of successful films rose to ten, a major change in just the past two years. He went on to say that while huge-budget Hollywood “tentpole” movies, like Spiderman or Shrek, usually perform well internationally, local productions in most countries surpassed American dramas and comedies in 2006. This is even more remarkable given the cost comparison: a typical Hollywood drama will cost between 20 and 60 million US dollars to make, but local productions rarely exceed two million-dollar budgets. Darnaude clarified that Hollywood executives were investing in local productions and that in Spain four out of the six top movies for 2006 were co-productions with major studios. From his own company, the film Ninas Mal (Charm School) was produced in Mexico for 1.7 million US dollars, but rocketed to the top of the local box office taking in more than seven million US dollars before the year’s end. He guided students through the steps of international marketing, commenting that executives now monitor distribution all over the world in order to take advantage of the best conditions for new releases in foreign territories. But the former USC student noted that Hollywood movies continue to dominate film markets everywhere despite recent interest in local production. He warned that once local talents achieve success, they often leave for careers in the US.

There are many examples of world cinema talents entering the Hollywood studio system going as far back as the silent era and European immigration patterns; and the three Mexican directors working with Focus Features are classic examples. All three of them made art films that won awards at international film festivals, and then through agents and other professional contacts they moved on to bigger productions based in Los Angeles, eventually winning Academy Awards. They are exceptional in the sense that the new deal with Focus/Universal redirects their talents back toward Mexico and the Spanish-language audience, with smaller budgets, rather than expanding into the tent pole category like the Australian director Peter Jackson. Other recent innovations in migration trends of international filmmakers entering the Hollywood financial system include the purchase of “remake” rights for films by John Woo (Hong Kong), Park Chan-wook (Korea) and Bong Joon-ho (Korea). But in recent years the most prominent transnational co-production filmmaker has been Ang Lee from Taiwan. Lee was first nominated for a foreign-language Oscar in 1993 with his second feature film, The Wedding Banquet, a film that cost well under a million US dollars to make but which grossed over 60 million dollars at international box offices. His first three features were co-produced by the state film studio of Taiwan and a small company in New York called Good Machine. In 2002, Lee and Good Machine had an extraordinary year with the international hit movie Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, which broke international box office records and won multiple Academy Awards. The film remains the quintessential model of transnational co-production exporting, in effect, a hybrid Hong Kong/Taiwan/American symbolic system for a worldwide audience. That same year, two of the three partners at Good Machine sold their company to Universal Pictures. The two partners, David Linde and James Schamus started a new “specialty division” called Focus Features that produced Lee’s next Oscar-winning film Brokeback Mountain in 2005, which cost 14 million dollars to make and took in over 120 million dollars at the box office after remaining in theaters well into 2006. Although Ang Lee grew up in Taiwan, he studied acting and directing in America and has become a paragon of global marketing through film festivals and local press.

By the time TWC released Quentin Tarrantino’s Kill Bill movies in 2003, which were co-produced in three different Asian countries, the “new film economy” mentioned by David Linde in Berlin 2007, was already established. It had been the foundation of Ang Lee’s international popularity for ten years. When Linde spoke to the Berlin audience as the new co-chairman of Universal pictures, his position alone indicated how important small-budget transnational film production had become for the Hollywood industry. Linde had risen from being a sales and marketing representative at the Weinstein’s first film company, Miramax, to become a partner at Good Machine and later co-founder of Focus Features. His speech as the new co-chairman Universal included remarks derived from experience: “films are made everywhere, set everywhere and tell stories about people everywhere.” This philosophy represents, on one hand, a departure from the export strategies of Hollywood and a diversification of the prevailing symbolic order; but it also constitutes the continued expansionist tendencies of Universal, TWC, Sony and every other major Hollywood media corporation, because American products still dominate world media markets.

David Linde’s former partner at Focus Features, James Schamus, is also a film historian who teaches at Columbia University in New York. In a recent feature article for the New Yorker magazine, film critic David Denby interviewed Schamus as part of an extensive survey on the current state of the American film industry. The main focus of the article was speculation about how new technologies would affect the production and reception of movies in years to come. Denby cites recent innovations such as delivering movies to mobile phones and “on-demand” distribution services through the internet, including digital projection in theaters. In addition to a wide range of digital cameras and inexpensive editing equipment, it seems that anybody nowadays can be a filmmaker and watch movies almost anywhere. Denby worries over the demise of traditional cinemas in the midst of so many technological innovations, because in his view films released in movie theaters are public events, they bring groups of people together in ways that television and personal media cannot. But Schamus assures him that movie theaters are here to stay. “Movies are a pretext for social interaction,” Schamus says. “So don’t think of the future in terms of technology. It’s not a question of platforms but how people want to use social spaces, how given ethnic and age groups want interact.”

Participation and Reflexivity

Taken at face value, Schamus’ statement seems ironic since the movie-going experience is a special kind of social interaction that takes place in darkened rooms, and films are widely recognized as symbolic systems. But his point is nuanced and important when we consider the anthropology of transnational co-production. By indicating the choices of “given ethnic and age groups” Schamus integrates his role as a teacher with his other role as a studio executive and introduces the aspect of personal taste, desire, and social cohesion in public spaces, in a word,  participation, all useful concepts for marketers, economists, and anthropologists. Considering the recent actions of Focus/Universal toward the Mexican market, and other distribution houses like TWC in Asia, anthropologists in Vietnam might similarly reflect on local film production and its potential in the transnational arena of co-production. Rather than looking at the movement of capital and the restructuring of organizations strictly in terms of business interests, Vietnamese film culture stands to benefit from anthropological research directed toward its own apparatus with the goal of finding useful links in the contemporary media environment. Clearer understandings of the forms and means of cultural representation would benefit an equity-based Vietnamese film industry while at the same time avoiding virtual deterritorialization, a concept developed by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, brought on by the disproportionate symbolic capital of international media conglomerates.

A film released in theaters throughout the world, however, involves the participation of an international community, and local productions financed with foreign money can sometimes reach far beyond domestic borders. This is the other side of the “new film economy.” Could the same be true of DVD, internet or television releases? As the renowned Chinese director Jia Zhangke discovered when he submitted his first feature films made with cheap video cameras to prestigious festivals like Venice and Cannes, the superior production values of big-budget Hollywood movies were not always the most important considerations for juries. And now, after winning awards and gaining a significant audience in Europe, Canada, Japan and the US, Zhangke is working with the Beijing studio on transnational productions that are considerably more elaborate and expensive, the same career trajectory experienced by Mexican directors Cuaron, Inarritu, and Del Toro who recently signed the deal with Focus/Universal.  Zhangke’s films are no longer prohibited by Chinese authorities, and he has retained creative control on every project.

Alternatively, the Hollywood standard continues to function as a measure of prestige and commercial viability for world cinema filmmakers and Zhangke has not yet reached that threshold. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nevertheless received films from a record 63 countries for its foreign-language competition this year, including director Luu Hyunh’s The White Silk Dress from Vietnam, which shouldn’t be surprising since the US is a nation of immigrants. But American movies have a history of dominating international markets so thoroughly that some governments, South Korea, for example, have enacted quota systems to protect domestic filmmakers from American hegemony. The Academy Awards are a chance for filmmakers from around the world to engage the overweening Hollywood system with its vast international distribution network. The risk they enjoin, however, is that they will be rewarded only if they play by Hollywood’s rules.

In a feature essay from 2004 entitled “What is a foreign movie now?” the chief film critic of the New York Times, A.O. Scott ponders the idea of Canadian directors Atom Egoyan and Ian Balfour that “Every film is a foreign film, foreign to some audience somewhere.”  Scott laments the small market for foreign movies in the US,

I am most concerned with American audiences, and in particular with the parochialism that results from living in a country with a film industry so powerful and productive, so frank and cheerful in its imperial ambitions, that it threatens to overshadow everything else. It is not just the setting and content of a movie like The World [Zhangke – DW] that may seem foreign but also its visual strategy and storytelling methods, and above all its unsentimental commitment to the depiction of ordinary life, to a kind of realism that is in some ways more alien to us than the reality it construes. Hollywood studios, as they try to protect their dominant position in the global entertainment market, are ever more heavily invested in fantasy, in conjuring counterfeit worlds rather than engaging the one that exists, and in the technological R &D required to expand the horizons of novelty and sensation. And while we, along with everybody else, often go to the movies to escape from the pressures and difficulties of the actual world, we also sometimes go to discover it.

Preceding David Linde’s notion that “films are made everywhere” by three meaningful years, these reflections on the American film industry and its correspondences with the international community reveal institutional changes that are significant for Vietnam. As Vietnamese society gradually converts to an equity-based economy and cultural exchange becomes more frequent with increased trade, spectators are faced with a host of new media options and choices. The generation born in peacetime is beginning to incorporate consumerist lifestyles and as a consequence “discovers” the “actual world,” to borrow Scott’s terminology, through movies and television. What does the 50 percent growth in the box-office receipts of movie theaters say about how “people want to use social spaces,” or about how “given ethnic and age groups want to interact?” The answers to these questions will support the domestic film industry as much as they will help preserve the symbolic capital of Vietnam, its language and vision of life from disintegration under the strain of an aggressive influx of foreign media.

What I’m suggesting is more than visual anthropology in its orthodox form. Instead, I believe the efforts by Jay Ruby, one of the pioneers of the discipline, would be much more productive in the new media environment of East Asia. Cultural anthropologists would be wise to diminish the “business as usual” of ethnographic filmmaking and gravitate toward a more reflexive practice that, as Jean Rouch did, puts cameras in the hands of the communities being researched and studies filmmaking itself as a cultural institution, an important source of symbolic capital. The Ford Foundation has recently co-operated with groups in Yunnan doing precisely this with Vietnamese partners, and filmmaker Phan Y Ly’s Green Meadow is another example of a modest change of direction, albeit thematically driven by the injustice of poverty rather than on the grand scale of narrative fiction. The expansion of documentary film markets around the world, however, has introduced diverse genres and aesthetics from many nationalities, a trend popularized in 2004 through the success of the Academy Award-winning film Born into Brothels which put cameras in the hands of the children of prostitutes in Calutta. But what Ruby calls for is, in fact, a renovation of media pedagogy. From his personal website he explains:

Visual Anthropology is often considered to be merely a fancy word for ethnographic film. I see the field as more inclusive and complex dealing with all aspects of the visible world from the vantage point afforded by theories of culture and communication. Ethnographic film is a minor branch of the documentary film world and almost totally oriented to television or the classroom. It has marginalized itself from the mainstream of cultural anthropology in part because few ethnographic filmmakers are trained anthropologists and the theoreticians of ethno-film like Bill Nichols and Trinh T. Minh-ha have a less than adequate knowledge of anthropology.

There are two canonical books read by everyone interested in “visual anthropology” – Heider’s Ethnographic Film, Hockings’ Principles of Visual Anthropology and John Collier’s Visual Anthropology. I find these works under-theorized in a way that trivializes the field. Moreover there has been a lack of public debate about their adequacy. I have therefore added my reviews of Heider and Hockings to the list of my writings available via the web. Along with Sol Worth and others, I advocate an approach to visual anthropology called the anthropology of visual communication. [My emphasis – DW] There are several essays in Worth’s Studying Visual Communication that outlines the stance. I was the director of a graduate program at Temple University where these ideas were explored. Along with my colleagues Bapa Jhala, Niyi Akinasso, and Denise O’Brien, we developed a unique program of graduate studies in the anthropology of visual communication from 1990 to 2002.

As early as 1980, however, Ruby advocated “that all serious filmmakers and anthropologists have ethical, aesthetic, and scientific obligations to be reflexive and self-critical about their work. I would, in fact, expand that mandate to include anyone who uses a symbolic system for any reason.” My point is that this line of thinking is not exclusive to anthropology, the social sciences or the film industry as a business venture. It is simply sound advice. The rise of David Linde to the co-chairmanship of one of the five largest film studios in Hollywood hinged upon his partnerships with James Schamus and Ang Lee in transnational film production, starting in 2002. Linde and the Weinsteins, among others now investing in world cinema, recognize the financial and cultural advantages of supporting local film production, but they could not have reached such conclusions without being “self-critical about their work.” That is to say, they looked carefully at the filmmaking process, the marketing and distribution process, and the cultural institutions that sustain them.

They’re not the first, and reflexivity goes far beyond documentary filmmaking, visual anthropology, and business development. Jean Luc Godard, for example, one of the most prolific of the French New Wave directors, has enjoyed a highly productive a career by incorporating the reflexive ideas of Bertold Brecht, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Glauber Rocha, and Hollywood auteurs like Howard Hawks into his creative process. His massive French television series compiled from thousands of hours of footage of various origins, entitled History of Cinema, assembles media images in a heterogeneous critical essay for broadcast without narration. It is a densely reflexive hyper textual bricolage, to borrow Levi-Strauss’s terminology, and it questions Godard’s own status in the film history narrative. Jia Zhangke, too, carefully observed the culture and institutions of film production in China before he decided to make his first feature film, Platform, in video format. The film started as a documentary record of a group of traveling dancers, an ethnographic film, essentially; but it gradually became a fictional story as the performers were integrated into the filmmaking process, a transformation Zhangke captured on camera while collaborating with his cast. Deleuze refers to this process as the function of fabulation in the work of anthropologist Jean Rouch, and I suggest that it provides an excellent model for new creative strategies.

Reflexive and participatory filmmaking was a method of self-refinement and invention for Rouch, who had a powerful influence on African anthropology and film history. In his film Janguar, for example, Rouch collaborated with three young men who migrated to the Gold Coast from Nigeria to find work. Together they produced what Rouch termed an “ethnofiction” film based on personal transformation during the filmmaking process. The film was not, so to speak, a “period piece” in the film industry sense, or a “re-creation of actual events” as are many performative documentary films, according to the taxonomy of Bill Nichols; the three protagonists in Jaguar, instead, worked with the director on blocking, editing and sound design, incorporating chance encounters so that fresh story details emerged from the production itself. Wandering, the three travelers encounter a tribe called the Somba, a remote mountain people who wear no clothing. “These are gentle people,” one character says. “We shouldn’t mock the Somba just because they are nude. God wanted them this way.” In another film, Moi, un noir, Rouch collaborated with young residents of a town in Abidjan depicting their daily lives. The ensemble uses the film production as an occasion for “legendizing” as they assume the names of classic Hollywood actors, Edward G. Robinson, Eddie Constatine, Lemmy Caution, Tarzan, and Dorathy Lamour. The performances and plot elements were improvised, as the participants followed their intuitions and creative energies. A playful voice-over narration incongruously draws western viewers toward intimate identification with the characters without resorting to sentimental clichés and borrowed dramatic conventions.

Rouch proposed a “new method” of anthropological research that consisted of “sharing” models and tools with “the people who, before, were only the objects of study.” In this spirit, I would suggest that Vietnamese anthropologists share the study of filmmaking with their new cultural subjects, the Vietnamese filmmakers, to promote stories, institutions and practices that will build and sustain symbolic capital, by improvisation, if necessary, but through reflexive participation in contemporary Vietnamese life. Deleuze refers to the dynamic surge of creative self-invention in Rouch’s cinema as “metamorphic force-in-action, images engaged in a process of becoming,” where real people spontaneously fictionalize their own lives in desirable ways during the filmmaking process. The conceptual framework for this kind of participatory anthropology is applicable to the evolving needs of the new media environment in Vietnam. For what is at stake if not a virtual migration toward a system of functional Vietnamese symbols for the next generation to survive in the new media environment? Rouch’s ethnofictions were not loved by all; among his detractors was the giant of Senegalese cinema Ousmane Sembène. But even he respected Rouch as an anthropologist and ethnographic filmmaker, and differentiating the means of production helped refine Sembène’s own ideas about the art of narrative feature films through comparison. In this sense, the comparative methods of cultural anthropologists have a great deal to offer aspiring filmmakers in Vietnam as they negotiate the opportunities and perils of transnational co-production.

Filmmaking requires resources, capital, space, and time; it requires negotiations, laws, records and institutions. How will Vietnam navigate the new media environment without an active, anthropological taxonomy of the current media culture, where it has come from, and where it might go? The University of London offers a Master’s Degree in Media Anthropology through its School of Oriental and African Studies. From the program website we learn:

Most media studies remain centered on the English-speaking world, thus universalizing culturally specific activities. This program, by contrast, sets out to develop a distinctively anthropological approach to media, which considers media as social and cultural practices. The degree aims to study media in Asia and Africa both ethnographically and theoretically. It is particularly suitable for: Students with a degree in media or cultural studies; Students with a degree in the social sciences or humanities wishing to acquire a broad understanding of media and cultural studies with special reference to Asia or Africa; People with professional experience in film, television, journalism, advertising or public relations;

Students with a degree in social anthropology wishing to pursue more specialist media-related topics possible with regional or language-based study; Students who wish to take the degree as a conversion course before proceeding to a research degree in anthropology of media.

The community of Vietnamese anthropologists can start the process of inquiry that will support a viable culture of transnational co-production in Vietnam if it adopts a similar vision. Anthropology has an important role in media education as Vietnamese young people respond to a vast array of options in the new media environment. How will Vietnamese culture be represented or changed under these new conditions? Investments and scholarship by overseas Vietnamese will have an influence on co-production partnerships and media education. What can be learned and gained by fostering exchange with the international Vietnamese diaspora? Will Vietnam be inundated with foreign content the years to come? Or will it develop an export media sector like other Asian economies in Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, China, Singapore, Thailand and India? These are some anthropological questions for Vietnam in the new media environment of transnational co-production. My hope is that they will stimulate useful discussions among anthropologists. Like David Linde’s “new film economy,” Jean Rouch’s “new method” of participatory anthropology propels creative synthesis and integration. Similar to Ruby’s call for self-criticism and innovation, Bourdieu recommends a reflexive sociology that takes into account the effects of the researcher’s presence. Through perpetual collective evaluation, he seeks to expel distortions or prejudices that may change the object of study into a projection of the researcher’s bias. Vietnamese culture has much to gain from the recognition that media production is a valid object of anthropological research, and that anthropologists too can be filmmakers.

Selected sources

Bogue, Ronald. Deleuze on Cinema. New York: Routeledge, 2003.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Language & Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Harvard, 1991.

Brooks, Brian.

Denby, David. “Big Pictures.” The New Yorker. 8 January 2007: 54-63.

Hernandez, Eugene.

Johnson, Craig.

Knegt, Peter.

Pitchbeck, Daniel. “Out of Africa.” Artforum International. 1 October 2000.

Ruby, Jay.

Scott, A.O. “What is a Foreign Movie Now?” The New York Times. 14 November 2004.

Tella, James.

University of London.

~ by maximumeskimo on November 12, 2007.

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