Interview Tab

CINÉ-CLUB III Ricardo Greene

Göttingen, 15. May 2010, Sociology

The Chilean urban sociologist and filmmaker Ricardo Greene presented his short film The Absence as part of the Göttingen International Ethnographic Film Festival 2010. During the festival, we had the chance to meet him and talk about questions that arise at the interface between science and film and why he sees himself as an audiovisual researcher.

Ricardo Greene is working on his PhD, for which he conducted field work in a gated community in Buenos Aires. He studies Visual Anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is one of the editors of the online journal Bifurcaciones and coordinator of the digital platform for filmmakers OVERLAP.


Ricardo, for the past years you have been working a lot with film. How come that you started off with Sociology?
When I finished school I was eager to study something that gave me a broad view on society, on life in general. I didn’t want to receive a narrow and specialized education and I thought through sociology I’d have the chance to cover politics, religion, economy, culture, education and further aspects of social life. It was quite a naive approach to science and to sociology in particular, but a good starting point.
And were your expectations fulfilled?
Yes and no. Yes, I received a broad understanding of society, but – of course – only from a sociological point of view. Once I finished, though, I realized there was one big thing missing in the picture: „Space“. Space was never seen as a variable, it was not something you could actually study. Space was framed just like a stage where things happen and I believed – and still do – that space has an active role in social life, enhancing, transforming, re-drawing processes and practices.
In the general topic of „Space“ and how it influences society and vice versa, what were the main aspects you dealt with?
I took part in a research project on urban safety. Not just crime, but also its perception and how and where both of them overlap. I was involved for two years in that research and after that I started the MA in Santiago de Chile.
Once there, I was invited to join a research about the decline of urban centers and another one about residential segregation. The latter was a great experience, mainly because of the researcher team. But it's very strange that even in urban studies many of the lecturers tend to minimize space. There is a widespread belief that space is just a reflection of social structures. Like a neo-Marxist theory, in a way. For example, if you have an unequal society, you will have a segregated city and the city reflects point-to-point how society is. That particular research team was completely different, and I learned a lot from them.
I read Seeing like a State by James Scott. I think it’s a very central work. It shows how state-power is being gained by urban architecture or geographic aspects, like, for example, it is common sense that people who live in the mountains can’t be reached quite easily. They live far away from state power. It is an anarchistic book, because of its big critique of the state and it illustrates how society influences the living space of people. But in my opinion, people do influence their space as well.
I really like the work of Michel de Certeau The Practice of Everyday Life. It was quite an influential book for me. It complements – or perhaps challenges – Foucault’s theory of power. De Certeau is always trying to show how even in the most totalitarian states or in the most inescapable situations of power, people and institutions can resist by finding creative ways to avoid punishment, discipline or surveillance.
Could you name an example?
For my PhD I studied huge gated community located at the outskirts of Buenos Aires. It is the biggest one in Latin America, designed for 140,000 people. Its purpose is to become a self-organized community – private and closed-gated.
With security men ...
Yes, exactly. It took me about a year just to gain access! I am working with the idea of permeable borders. Almost everything that has been written about gated communities – especially in Latin America – gives you a very black-and-white idea of those spaces: that these were neighborhoods inhabited just by rich people who wanted to excludethemselves from the rest of society.
There is a feature film that deals with this issue, but I don’t remember the title. It’s a newer one and it’s taking place in Mexico, I think.
Are you talking about La Zona?
Yes, I think that’s it. It dealt only with common chlichés.
Look, I am not defending gated communities, not at all. But I think we as researchers should explore them in a more complex way: trying to understand how they reproduce themselves, how they function. I have the impression that researches are more concerned with criticizing gated communities than creating knowledge about them. And we are talking about the biggest urban phenomena in Latin America of the past twenty years. The biggest by far. Just outside of Buenos Aires there are almost 500 of these projects. That’s why I focused on the idea of the border, trying to see everything that goes from the inside to the outside and vice versa. Understanding how and why borders are crossed and how and why they are transformed by this operation.
Do you want to say that the border isn’t really a border that separates?
Yes, it can’t separate. Of course things that finally enter the area are often controlled and put under surveillance. But they do enter. And things do get out. The whole idea of closing the area is and will always be an unfulfilled wish. The inhabitants have to go outside for a number of reasons and almost 5,000 people enter the place each day to work: gardeners, guards, teachers, taxi drivers, domestic workers and so on.
You are the founder and editor of an online journal that deals with urban culture studies. It is called Bifurcaciones. Maybe you can explain the title and tell a little bit more about it.
Bifurcaciones was founded 7 years ago and its title derives from the short story The Garden of the Forking Path by Jorge Luis Borges. The original title is El Jardín de senderos que se bifurcan.The name refers to the unpredictability or the risk of a bifurcation: the multiple chances, the many ways you can go and the infinite things that can happen around the corner. It is, in a way, an homage of what we think a city is – or should be.
There were two of us when we began. We invited a lot of people, almost forty in different roles. We didn’t have any budget at all, but plenty of energy. By now we are the second or the first most read Spanish online journal in the world.
When I visited the homepage, the first impression was that it is really well designed and very catchy. The different subjects are not only analyzed by text, but through many different media.
Our idea was to create a journal that would be appealing not just to academics, but to a broad audience as well. We explicitly wanted to break the endogamy of academic communication, but without compromising quality and rigor. I feel the same way about Visual Anthropology, that we – as academics – have a big responsibility to share the knowledge we produce. It's not just about publishing in a very exclusive journal, so no one reads it but a few academics. We have to find new ways to create a discussion. Especially because most of us are funded by governmental funds. It’s the people themselves that are paying for our research. Researchers publish their results, but they don't make the data basis public. People should be able to use the database for free.
What was your main motivation to study Visual Anthropology?
It's very hard to say why one does something. There are a number of reasons and some of them I don’t really know. It’s not rational. My main objective was to find ways of reflecting on things related to the visual within the social sciences. In the journal we were increasingly including videos, soundscapes and photos, and I realized we didn't have any way to judge them as we judge written texts. The way of evaluating written text in a journal is very well established. There are peer-review people and they have to check a number of things. But what happens with a video? If you submit a text to a journal the editors can send you corrections, but with a video it is unthinkable. You will not hand your film to an editor in order to have it edited. A different media requires a different logic of academic evaluation. I also wanted to discuss this matter because I had the ambition to produce films and films are not being considered in academic life at all. In most places, if you apply for a job or a research position, all that counts is your list of publications and research projects. It doesn't count if you had made a film, which has been shown in about 50 festivals, it doesn't exist. That's why I was looking for something visual, for non-conventional ways of academic communication. I applied to the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology in Manchester and to the Goldsmiths in London. I finally went to Goldsmiths, because I thought it was, precisely, less conventional, more experimental.
But let's talk about the subjects of your research. Why can't they be analized just by text?
Everything can be communicated through written media, but that's not the main issue. The point is, when you produce a written or a visual text, you are trying to convey different things about the same phenomena. But you are not really talking about the same. Because with film you are doing something different. You are portraying something that you can't touch or grab with text in the same way. Yes, I could do a written traditional text about my fieldwork. F***, I am doing that! I am writing a hundred thousand words about my research. But at the same time I can do a film and I can say things I am not able to communicate to my audience, to my viewers, with text.
I would like to know more about your filmic biography. Were films very important for you as a child? Did you have a TV? How come you are interested in film in the first place?
As long as I remember I have been interested in film. But for a long time in very crappy films. I don't feel like I have a filmic tradition. My family don't watch what you would call good films, but normal films.
Yes, but they can be good as well.
No, no, I am not judging. It's just that if I say I've been watching films all my life, you can get the impression, that I've been watching Tarkowski since I was five. And no, I was watching films starring Eddie Murphy – mainly Hollywood films. Furthermore, I grew up in Chile in the 80s and there weren't many films available, because of the dictatorship. Chilean films were forbidden, except a few films for crappy promotional or governmental films.
Yes, propaganda, that's the word. Since our dictatorship was partially funded or at least aligned with the US, we received many US-American films and that's what I watched for years. I don't know where I got my first camera from, but I started making these crazy surreal films at the age of 17 or 16. Which you will never get to see, of course.
On your own or with friends?
With friends, but I edited them by myself using VHS-players. I loved that.
For a psychology course in school, for example, I made a short film, about twenty minutes long. We had to submit a text, but I handed in this film and my whole course was like: what?! It was really an incomprehensible film, full of crappy symbolism, where every single scene meant something. I really had to explain what the film was all about. I was quite influenced by Kubrick at the time and wanted to do this cryptic thing. I don't know why I am saying this, I never talked about it before. It was during this time that I got very excited about films. I wanted to study filmmaking, but I never really made an effort to do so right away. Because to have a good theory, a background, seemed more important to me than going to film school right away.
Could one say that you first wanted to get in contact with the subjects you could make films about?
Yes, I wanted to understand things before filming them. I don't know if it was the right way to do it.
Why aren't you sure? Do you regret to have spent time on other things?
If you have theoretical concerns, you can do films and be reflective at the same time. You don't have to study five or six years of Sociology, do a M.A., a PhD and then start filming. But I thought it was necessary to have a broader perspective. I started to study Sociology and I never touched a camera in six years. The more I read about theory, the more I feared picking up a camera.
Like a block?
Also I was afraid of showing things and of the people's reaction as well. But it's part of a process, and in 2008 I felt I had to start filming. One of my first works was the first-cut of The Absence.
After that I started doing what I call audio-visual short essays, which you can see on my Vimeo-Channel.I have like 10 of these short videos, which are between 2 and 5 minutes long. I am currently producing more of those. I lost my fear by putting them online. After a while I received invitations to show the films around. One was in about 7 festivals and was sold on a DVD in the US for galleries and exhibitions. I am not especially proud of these essays, but I don't care anymore.
So basically they were a step to overcome your fear.
Yes, and to get practice. You learn how to use a camera, how to relate to people with the camera, by just taking the camera out. You can't learn about these things through reading: for example how to talk to someone while being concerned with the camera, the framing, the audio, the questions ...
Would you call these video essays scientific films? I know, it's a big word, but ...
They are kind of different. I don't know how to call them. It's quite difficult. But the main thing is, that in each one of them I had a different question. For example, I wanted to know about senses, an epistemological way of approaching the world and selecting certain things from the environment to reduce complexity. I work on this issue in two minutes, one film, and that's it. Some of these films are crap, some of them are better, and all of them are explorations.
Let's talk about The Absence now, which was shown here in Göttingen. It is about a domestic worker, who has worked about 30 years at your parents' place. It is quite a personal film. Isn't it a big deal to show such … ?
Yeah, you get quite exposed in a way. Everybody is seeing your life. I don't think I'll do another autobiographical film again. But somehow I think it's fair to be willing to expose yourself, since you are expecting other people to do so. I ask them about their lives, about their homes – everything! Usually you get really close and intimate and you expect people to open up. And if I am not willing to do that, why should they?
I realize that always when ethnographic movies get intimate I judge them as good films. Because a lot of films are just touching the surface. But I know it's an ethic question as well.
At least it's dangerous. It's quite easy, especially for beginners, to become familiar with your family or with yourself. But it's an own problem in a way. In fact, for my thesis I chose the most difficult environment that I could: gated communities. I spent a year to gain access and I chose it on purpose. For The Absence I had a good access and I needed the opposite. Maybe I pushed too far.
Filmstill, La Ausencia (The Absence), Ricardo Greene, 2008. Courtesy of the artist.
Yes, it's quite the opposite. What impressed me in The Absence was the idea of space. We talked about space and the meaning of space for you. You are filming these rooms of the house and you are filling them up with photographs and memories.
Yes, the film is designed as a tour through the house. All of us moving through together following certain order. Each frame has a black and white photograph in the background showing an empty space – a „non-space“ in a way. I filled it with colored photos of memories of the people who lived in, slept in or used that room. All the memories I had in relation to the room. In the first-cut every room was filled with music, songs we usually listened to. But then I had to change them, because of copyright issues. I didn't have any money to pay.
The first cut was my story. It started in my parents’ bedroom, which was filled with photographs and finished in the domestic worker's room, where all we see is the black and white background, as if I had almost no recollection of that space. We don't have any photographs of the domestic worker. So it was like that. While going through this house every room was filled with memories, sounds and music. But in that final space, which is also part of the house – and at the same time isn't –, there is only emptiness. It's present, but absent. That was the main idea. The whole film was always designed through space. But both parts – the visual and the sound – were equally important.
Filmstill, La Ausencia (The Absence), Ricardo Greene, 2008. Courtesy of the artist.
After the screening you said that it's important to change the conventions of ethnographic films. Which convention do you see?
It's not that important to change the conventions. Ethnographic film has become a genre like western or any other. They follow certain rules. There are things you can say and things you can't. You have to produce them in a special way, in order for them to be broadcasted or to be sold. I am trying not to consider these issues but at the same time I am not judging them. As visual anthropologists we have to be more reflective about the use of audiovisual media. We should be the first ones not to change, but to discuss the decisions we are taking. One has to be at least aware of them, because we follow fixed narrative and static conventions.
Maybe sometimes the use of audiovisual media is not the best way. There are other ways that are much more appropriate to the subject. You should have enough freedom to use the medium, which conveys your subject of research properly.
Filmstill, La Ausencia (The Absence), Ricardo Greene, 2008. Courtesy of the artist.
There is a big discussion about reflective films going on. The easiest way could be to show the camera in a mirror, so that the audience is aware of its presence. Quite simple.
How do you try to be reflective?
In my opinion being reflective doesn't mean necessarily to show how the film is made. It is thinking about the decisions you are taking. Whether you convey that in the film or not, that's not the point.
I didn't follow much the conventions in The Absence. I was only concerned in finding a visual, plastic way, to get close and convey the issue I was exploring. I preferred that, rather than making a few interviews and put cut-outs of the house together. In this way I really recreated the political and at the same time very affective relationship between my family and the domestic worker.
Do you want to give the audience access by using all senses?
Yeah. An anthropological film should be a sensual experience. And of course that is what the film is doing to you. I mean, when you are in a dark room watching a film, you are being physically affected. You can be physically affected by text also, but not in the same way. Film produces a number of things. It's not always a bodily experience only. It can be a theoretical as well. But you perceive it in a different way.
One has to find other solutions of using video, of using media in a visual manner. That's what audiovisual anthropologists should be doing: taking advantage of what the film language is offering them.


Theresa George

Filmography Tab

CINÉ-CLUB III Ricardo Greene

Göttingen, 15. May 2010, Sociology

La Zona (Carlos Rodriguez, ES: 2006)

Films by Stanley Kubrick


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