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Visualizations of Revolution: Historical Memory in the Filmic Form

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Organizer: Rosa Martinez

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In January 1896, the Lumière Brothers screened Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat to an eager Parisian audience. It’s been rumored for decades that those in attendance ran in fear of a life-sized train seemingly coming towards them. While the story is (more likely than not) apocryphal, it underlines cinema’s profound ability to move, both literally and figuratively, the masses. Film forever altered storytelling and the way in which we see ourselves, both individually and collectively. Decades later, in their electrifying 1969 manifesto Towards a Third Cinema, Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino called for a cinema consisting of “works made with the camera in one hand and a rock in the other.” This image confirmed that the revolutionary had seized hold of a new weapon in the 20th century—the camera. From Hanoi to Harlem, Argentina to Algeria, Petrograd to Paris, wherever political, social, and cultural ruptures sprang forth during this (long) century, a camera was never far behind. In fact, the many films—documentary, fictional, and otherwise—made during and after political ruptures have helped sculpt conversations about these events. For example, the Odessa Steps scene in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, in which Tsarist troops indiscriminately fire their guns into a crowd during the Russian Revolution of 1905, is so iconic that the event is sometimes (mistakenly) referenced as historical fact. However, the film helped to solidify the uprising of 1905 as a “dress rehearsal” for the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. This seminar aims to explore the relationship between political and social revolutions and the aesthetics of film. Drawing on many forms of critique, we ask: what is film’s relationship to statecraft, nation-building, and technologies of surveillance? Does film function as a mere vehicle for witnessing revolution or is it itself a catalyst? What changes about a “revolution” when everyone at the protest has a camera? With these questions in mind, we hope to engage with a rich history of images that have allowed audiences to look through the scope of a rifle, the smoke of burning barricades, and the emptied halls of power. Film scholars, critics, directors, and students are invited to submit proposals related—but not limited to—the following topics: What is the role of film and television in the ongoing negotiation of a country’s self-image? Can film properly elucidate upon the myriad effects violence and conflict have on the body politic? How does collective memory embedded in the cinematic form sculpt public opinion and nation-building, especially when concerning eras of civic unrest and violence? What role can film play, if any, in truth and reconciliation processes in nations attempting to move forward after instances of collective trauma? Over the course of three meetings, panelists will give 15–20-minute presentations, with discussion afterwards.

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