Book review of Ramyar D. Rossoukh and Steven C. Caton's Anthropology, Film Industries, Modularity (2021)
Anthropology, Film Industries, Modularity, edited by Ramyar D. Rossoukh and Steven C. Caton (2021). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Anthropology, Film Industries, Modularity, edited by Ramyar D. Rossoukh and Steven C. Caton gives voice to anthropological research on global film industries, with an eye to establishing a dialogue with researchers working on cinema from other disciplinary vantage points. The chapters in the text mainly draw on the methods and approaches of anthropology, including participant-observation, ethnography, and fieldwork, though film criticism and filmic textual analysis are also featured. More specifically, this book is a critique of the stage model of film production, which spans production to post-production activities and finally exhibition and reception. Instead of this, the text recommends the concept of “modularity” as a means by which to study film industries. The editors argue that during the COVID-19 era, “work need not have to be done from nine to five or in a fixed office space,” and they claim that “modularity is a key facet not only of industrial production, including film, but [also] of our everyday lives” (p. 31).
Chapter 1, by Tejaswini Ganti, examines the dubbing “module,” also known as dialogue translation, in the Hindi film industry. Ganti performs an ethnographic analysis of dubbers and film translators of Hollywood blockbusters for Hindi-speaking audiences. The chapter is a contribution to the linguistic anthropology of spoken Hindi as she problematizes the language ideologies that professional translators of a certain social status and educational level possess. Additionally, Ganti reflects on how translation nowadays is more effective than it has been in the past. The author argues that “a focus on language and translation helps to complicate nation-bounded understandings of film industries, specifically those of Bollywood and Hollywood” (p. 59). The chapter ends on an interesting note: “with the dubbed Hindi version doing more business than the English original, the question arises, is the Hindi version of The Jungle Book a Hollywood film or a Bollywood film?” (p. 59).
Chapter 2, by Ramyar D. Rossoukh, focuses on the module that encompasses editing. This chapter examines the post-production stage of the Iranian feature film The Willow Tree (Dir. Majid Majidi) by “focusing on a brief period between a rough-cut test screening of the film and a reedited version of the film” that debuted at Iran’s Fajr International Film Festival in 2005 (p. 86). The chapter also describes how digital editing technologies assist in arranging the scenes to create a better story from the available footage. Rossoukh calls this process an “uncanny double” and compares it with the film’s main character, Yusuf, who saw the world in a different light once he had been operated on and regained his eyesight. Similarly, the film crew saw a totally different light once digital editing technology was employed on the film (p. 82). Interestingly, Rossoukh argues that digital editing adds in a spiritual meaning to the film, which he calls the “digital divine” (p. 62).
Chapter 3, by Amrita Ibrahim, deals with the “transmedia storytelling” module, which includes script writing and editing for television and film. Ibrahim tells us how India’s news channels typically employ Bollywood studios to produce and narrate their crime programs. This can be read as an ethnography of transmedia storytelling in the Indian context. The chapter illustrates how “industries have ties to each other in terms of the flow of labor, ideas, and capital” (p. 91). The author calls the creative agents who fuse news and cinema “creative vectors” (p. 103). They work in the newsrooms as editors and writers creating a story that can be narrated by drawing from their knowledge of, and experience in, Bollywood cinema. Interestingly, the biographies of these creators become “vectors of individual transformation for others within the Indian public sphere, calling for an ethnography that goes beyond the production” (p. 34).
Chapter 4, by Lotte Hoek, deals with film censorship. Hoek studies censorship in the Bangladeshi film industry, which sets the “conditions for the production of an exhibition film rather than an effort to control it after production is over” (p. 34). As such, Hoek argues that the state becomes a double-edged sword: a site not only of film production but also of critical reflection on the production process. The author argues that “cinematic discernment” is central to film censorship, for it encompasses not only “proper” but also “quality” film production (p. 126).
Steven C. Caton, in Chapter 5, examines the relationship between the filmic script and politics. This chapter looks at “the other end of this industry spectrum,” discussing the context of Yemen – where there is no film industry, and production, as such, is perceived as a threatening and alien force due to the country’s rigid gender divisions and deep religiosity (p. 147). Caton also provides an ethnographic record of one of the few Yemeni films, A New Day in Old Sana’a (Dir. Bader Ben Hirsi, 2005), highlighting how its production encountered local opposition and bitterness, such that the experience did not become an “incubator for [an] emergent industry” as was foreseen (p. 145).
In Chapter 6, Sylvia J. Martin examines the practice of “shot stealing,” industry jargon for shooting a scene without getting permission, or compensating, the owner of the property or the people who are being filmed. Martin extends this practice, calling it “edgework,” which includes other dangers and risks: for example, on-location filming in dangerous or illegal places or dealing with dubious financing. In her ethnographic study, Martin studies these dynamics in two different film industries: that of Hong Kong and Hollywood. She argues that how downsizing and competition has exacerbated job insecurity. Likewise, smaller budgets have increased pressures on actors, crews, and directors to speed up filmmaking, while compromising labor conditions.
Jessica Dickson, in Chapter 7, discusses film financing, organizing, and coordinating as well as production controls, marketing, and exhibition. This chapter describes fieldwork conducted in Johannesburg on her film workshop’s experience with virtual reality (VR), during which innovators and film creators debated “whether and to what degree VR is especially suited to imagining Africa’s futures within African cinema” (p. 37). In the concluding chapter, Kevin Dwyer discusses complex national and global interdependencies with respect to the experiences of Moroccan filmmakers. The chapter shows how these filmmakers obtain government subsidies as a form of foreign assistance, via the Aid Fund administered by the Centre cinématographique marocain. Dwyer also explores what impact these subsidies have on small-scale film production, as “the film is supposed to repay the state’s financing based on a certain percentage of its Moroccan box office receipts” (pp. 216-217). Since 2004, this aid has resembled the French system of advances on a film’s receipts, whereby the film is supposed to repay the state’s financing based on a certain percentage of its proceeds. By and large, Dwyer’s contribution critically examines the several-decades journey of the Moroccan film industry, and how it is maintaining a fine balance between transnational and national forces.
The chapters of Anthropology, Film Industries, Modularity provide a clear ethnographic account and critical analysis of modularity in film industries across the globe. As such, this edited volume provides new and comparative insight on these industries’ differences as well as their similarities by being part of global cinema. This text will no doubt be a useful tool for researchers studying cinema and the ethnography and anthropology of film industries throughout the world.
Dr. Amitabh Vikram Dwivedi is a professor, specializing in linguistics and literature, in the School of Languages & Literature at Shri Mata Vaishno Devi University in India. His research interests include language documentation, descriptive grammars, and the preservation of rare and endangered languages in South Asia.