Professor Stephanie Hemelryk Donald
BA (Oxf.), DipTh (London.), MA (Soton.), DPhil (Suss.), FASSA, FRSA.
Current affiliation: Future Fellow and Professor of Comparative Film and Cultural Studies The University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia.
My Sydney Film Festival has started with Viktor Kossakovsky's
¡Vivan las Antipodas! a German/ Netherlands/French co-production starring 8 Antipodean situations in Botswana, Russia, Chile, Argentina, China, Hawaii, Spain, New Zealand. I should say locations, but that doesn't quite grasp the sort of cinema this film presents. The vision of location is as a place that is immense, unequivocally of itself, but nonetheless, and in some sense against all the odds, inhabited. So, location plus situation perhaps. Shanghai is really the only exception to the power relation between landscape and human = situation. he particularities of people, and the animals that they live with, invest each landscape with situation. Shanghai is the place where the massive intensity of the vision is evoked by the sheer mass of people, the grey pollution of the urban sky, and the noise. In my screening someone got up to complain of the noise levels in the Shanghai sequences, but these were surely intended. Elsewhere in the film, long shots and steady panoramas contend with medium close ups of domestic drama and interior human (and dog) life. There is a man who herds cats (he also herds sheep and they are significantly better behaved), but he doesnt work in a University. There are the brothers who run a toll point on a small ferry/bridge in Argentina. They notice everything and know everyone, they understand the different sounds of the toads and the movement of ants, and they love joking about women (they dont seem to have one living with them so perhaps that's as close as they get), they are friendly but wont go so far as to lend a saw to a customer. Their antipode is Shanghai, where the film-maker concentrates on the men running the ferry across from Pudong. No close and familial animal connections here, except the proximity of men on mopeds and motorised trolleys bearing uncovered pig carcasses to market. The market sequence is the most evocative I have seen of China's remaioning street markets.
Each place is antipodal to another. Sometimes this produces examples of contrast, sometimes of similarity and occasionally of enormous time shifts in the life of the planet. Extraordinary footage of volcanic lavae flowing down the mountain on Big Island, and the presumed death of a pet dog, and then we turn upside down and discover the tranquil volvcanic granit of Spain, populated by butterflies, fungi, and newts. The film announces that antipodes are rare as so much of the planet is covered in ocean. Some underwater shots (the lion drinking was brilliant) and the stupendously dogged vision of humans dealing with a beached whale in New Zealand, suggests another film might be needed on the antipodes of ocean life on a wet planet.
Sounds like a list of liveable cities? Well that's certainly true, but I am going to explain why Amsterdam won the toss for me this year. One word answer ... Bicycles. Every morning one gets up, showers, breakfasts, jumps on a bike. Cars are courteous, bikelanes are wide, bicyclists are confident, no need to wear helmets because one is not dealing with psychopathic drivers (although the mopeds are an interesting development). There are huge contraptions one can add on to an ordinary bike for children, shopping, kitchen sinks ... Every day one feels healthy, energised, happy. I could go on. But you get my drift.
I am a long way from Australia at present. I am based in Amsterdam, and have been travellin in Lithuania and a quick trip to Karlsruhe. But I was asked to write something about Australian democracy, which I found difficult to be frank. I am not a political scientist nor an Australian historian, but here are some thoughts dating back to August:
On 16 August 2011, there was a public meeting at St Peter’s Town Hall in Sydney’s inner west. The participants were protesting against the expansion of coal seam gas ‘exploration’ in residential areas.
Their fears resonated with concerns of farmers and communities across the Liverpool Plains. Energy grabs challenge the prime tenets of the good life: public health, long-term water and food security, national sovereignty, and an inviolable sense of home, whether that is in regional or urban New South Wales. Neither group has won their fight, and a support from the Leader of the Opposition is couched as a farmers’ fight, rather than as a coherent national debate over food security and the long term value of arable land, city communities, and the water table.
On 14 August 2011, the words ‘Dalian’ and ‘PX’ were disabled (or rather scanned for removal) on Sina Weibo, the extraordinary Chinese microblog network. PX is a petrochemical company. Dalian, a major industrial city in China’s north east, was made famous as a port for the Daqing oilfields in the 1960s. Paintings of its petrochemical plants were turned into posters in the 1970s, and the region was a byword for Chinese production and self-sufficiency.
In August 2011, Dalian had become a city seething with anger over petrochemical pollution. The aspirational classes, whose political acquiescence underpins China’s development, were roused to demonstrate. Thousands went on Weibo and on other sites, and locals took to the streets. This was a collective act of defiance and bravery in a State where protest is frequent but never legitimate. Government irritation notwithstanding, the local mayor promised to get the plant shut down or moved.
Taken together, one can see that defiance, demonstration, and a sense of the greater good are not confined to one type of regime. Indeed it seems that protest in a democratic polity may be brushed aside without consequence, whereas the shock of middle-class protest elsewhere resonates. A mayor in Dalian might actually get a plant shut down, if his power base supports him to do so. Which politician in New South Wales will challenge American and Chinese commercial mining interests, despite signs of popular dissent on home turf?
Arriving in Australia in 1997, I encountered something that was depressingly familiar; a society defining itself through exclusions. Naively, as I now realize, I was shocked by the political disrespect for Indigenous Australia, for people of colour, and for women. What kind of democracy was this?
The British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had declared in the mid-1980s that there was ‘no such thing’ as society. What she meant was that individuals and families are the building blocks of social and political association. The upshot of her remarks was that there was disrespect: no time and apparently no need to listen to each other any more. The logic of market dominance had won the day, what could possibly be left to discuss? Leaving Britain, even though we did so a month after Blair won the ‘97 election, seemed a wise move.
A new resident, and then citizen, in my new country, I glumly contemplated the Pauline Hanson phenomenon and waited for a chance to vote. As the years passed, the aggressive atmosphere culminated in the Tampa stand-off - a large Western democracy forgetting the first laws of seafaring: change tack to save the drowning, and give succour to those who are pulled from the sea’s unforgiving embrace.
In 2001, I walked to a voting station in Carlton North and, as eager supporters handed me voting cards, I realized that I had to eschew the major parties. Both had pursued an agenda of fear. They were scared of the redneck fringe, scared of leading change, and above all- scared of losing. I was trained enough in the responsibilities of freedom not to turn back, nor spoil my vote, so I went Green.
At that point, it seemed that a leader was required, a person of moral fibre, imagination, and courage (and ideally someone with a smidgeon of televisual charm, and persuasive oratory). We needed someone who could demonstrate the transformative intelligence that might inspire the better selves of the nation’s soul. People assured me the latter existed, and indeed I had seen those glimmers of respect in many personal encounters. I still do. But it wasn’t, and isn’t, in mainstream politics.
Several false starts later, here we are. The politics of cowardice have created a vacuum, in which – at least at the level of political discourse - there is conflict without argument, and prejudice without the creation of informed communities of interest.
Has democracy fallen prey to new media platforms, to amoral lobbyists, to social networking? Certainly, politicians seemingly have not learned how to manage the 24- hour news cycles with dignity, nor how to transcend the scramble of single interest group campaigns.
But I don’t think that social networks or the media have destroyed democracy. I don’t think they necessarily support deliberation either. Some do, some don’t. If political communications are lost in the vortex of influence, if news is analysis-lite, and if most people have little idea of why they should pay more attention to what the world around them is doing – because it really really does affect them - then the seriousness of the situation is underestimated. I think that fundamentally Australians still don’t respect each other enough across generations and places of origin, to listen to one another with much interest. And that goes for Left, Right and the shining path of centrism.
It’s also true that we can hardly tell the difference between an advertisement for maintaining the brand equity of the tobacco industries, and a campaign to vilify the so-called carbon tax. Tacky rhetoric rather than informed judgement abounds. Teenagers turn to George Watsky on YouTube for political intelligence (not a bad idea given the choices elsewhere). This is not so much a democracy deficit as an authority deficit.
Democratic systems need structural pliancy, checks and balances, multiple and mutually respectful nodes of expertise and judgement, and – most crucially - a certain regard for the public good. If deliberation takes place in blogs rather than in a daily broadsheet, that should, frankly, be neither here nor there. But you have to be prepared to speak and listen, or no conversation will take place at all. At that point democracy is without substance.
In Dalian, the people trusted that other Chinese would care about their situation. They appealed to a sense of common interest, and in a country where concerns are mounting about ecological impact on newly won lifestyle, they found support. Is anyone out there making the connection between the good life in middle Australia, and coal seam gas in St Peters, Gunnedah, and the Kimberley?
Earlier this year, I was delighted but surprised to be invited to address the national conference of the Planning Institute of Australia. As a film scholar with a strong interest in children and China (and sometimes both at once), what would they possibly want to hear from me? I presumed it must be the China question (more cities than any planner could possibly need in one planned lifetime), but no - they were being much more adventurous than that – they wanted to hear about film. So, I talked about how films explore cities, and in particular about how children in cities are often depicted as fast-moving, mobile small crowds. I thought aloud about those scenes where children pile on top of one another in a big scrap, arms and legs in all directions - a bit of biffing without consequences. Indeed, I remembered the films that we loved as children – when adults were nowhere to be seen and real adventures were possible – where children ran from one scrape to the next, and then reliably and resourcefully saved the day. And new films, where all that difficult growing-up stuff–happens in pretend places, unplanned and safe. Think of Max in Where the Wild Things Are, and all those riotous monsters. He looks into their terrible eyes, calms them for a moment, and then the rumpus starts. And later, when he’s a bit less riotous himself, he goes home to his Mum, and there’s a cup of milk waiting for him. Is that island of monsters a special imaginary city where things can get out of hand without ‘consequences’?
I explained to the planners that I was interested in the contradiction between the ‘right to the city’ as applied to adults, and the way in which children use the city – both in reality and on film. For adults, the right to the city’ is a term developed by Henri Lefebvre to discuss what happened to slum dwellers after Paris was cleared for its nineteenth century revamp. Where did the slum-dwellers go, and what did the new, modern, undeniably improved, city mean for them? Political geographers now use the term to judge how much and how far a city is ‘useable’ by certain populations. So, in China, does a migrant worker in Beijing have the same access to education, hospital care and clean living spaces as any other urban resident? If not, why not? In Australia, how do our visa categories determine the level of services that different populations can easily access and use? Or – here’s one for the planners - do the transport systems between the city and outlying suburbs work for everyone? Or do we really all need that little metal object commonly called car to realise an individual or collective right to the city? What if we don’t have/want/cant afford one, or just live too far away to make the journey worthwhile? What if we are children?
There are also films when children use the city to escape real problems at home, where the city is both an impromptu playground and a refuge, and finally a trap. In the 2008 Irish film Kisses, two young teenagers run away from abusive parents and a depressed suburb to the big city, Dublin. At first it’s a load of fun. It’s ‘mad’, to quote two infamous grrrl-teen rioters from last week. Not that these two fictional kids are making trouble. They shop with some money they nicked from an elder drug-dealing brother. They skate – literally and metaphorically – through a typical, brightly-lit shopping centre. (This is all Ireland pre-GFC). They play in streets, and stadia, and back-alleys, and they meet strange adults who are by turns magical and threatening. They exchange a kiss, and they fall in love. But finally, they give in to the inevitable – the city is not for them, they have no right to the city at night; indeed they have no rights there at all without the protection of someone else. They find a policeman, and get driven home. It’s not a happy ending, but it’s all they’ve got.
And now, I am watching another kind of film, a live feed from Manchester on the BBC world news website. It’s night there, morning here. Boys are running on the roadway by lamplight, darting down side streets, whilst a few policeman in formation move forward and backwards, not willing to commit to the rumpus and the ruckus, not able to catch all those eyes and stare them down. One boy saunters away with his arm round a girl. A riot policeman watches as they move fluidly into the sidestreet and out of range of the camera. Perhaps a car will come round and cut them off, or perhaps they’ll pick up a couple of consumer-riot prizes and go home. What should I tell the planners about this little non-fiction clip? It’s somewhere between the rubble romps of cinema (think Hue and Cry) after the blitzes of the European wars, and the internal combustion of Lord of the Flies. It makes mean 21st century sense of those rough boys in the fifties classic The Red Balloon, raging down cobbled streets and scrambling over walls to vacant ground in post-war Paris.
The clips I showed in the conference were a prompt to planners to remember children in the city, to think about what the ‘right to the city’ means for whom, where, and at what point in their lives. The question now seems both more important than ever, and futile. In films, children rush around as though adults cannot see them, and we don’t see the adults – apart from the few baddies and angels that the narrative uses to push things along. But in the Manchester film, the adults and the children are fighting over the same streets. Anger over the death of Mark Duggan, shot in Tottenham, is eclipsed by something stronger, wilder and more visceral. There is no justice possible when children will go to jail. There are no magic, life-altering kisses to hold onto as the children go home.
More on Liu Xiaodong:
Leaving Beichuan and Entering Lake Tai. On a second visit I found the Beichuan piece more moving. The girls sit in their teenage, haphazard fashions on the side of a destroyed town, the epicentre of the 2007 quake. But, although the quake and the destruction are of course fundamental to the narrative of the painting, the girls' expressions, demeanour, and grouping (what is the word for a group of teenagers?) are about class, opportunity and the suspicion forming behind their eyes that they may be at the wrong end of the social miracle.
Visited the Biennale exhibit in the MCA in People's Park. The MCA always looks as though it hasn't quite left either the 70s or the 40s, a bit dusty round the edges. This does not distract from the exhibits, but they do attract a sense of dustiness. Liu Xiaodong's two paintings of teenagers at lake tai were particularly moving and suited the hall. The teenagers were doing defiant and naive as they are wont to do. The big draw was Zhang Huan's 'Semele'. A reconstruction of a house that he has already reconstructed in his enormous studio at Songjiang, and then staged an opera in it. This is re-re-constructed in the gallery and parts of the opera are screened. Themes across the show: reconstruction and deconstruction of homes and cities. leaving Lake Tai, women's faces projected onto destroyed siheyuan, a-home-become-opera-set and then made into a facsimile of an opera set in the gallery. All these things - remind me of the dust.
I missed the strike in Barcelona (29.09.10) by a day, but being there at all that week was somewhat interesting given the desperation in Spanish finances sits alongside the ongoing ambition for Spanish cities. I was a speaker at the City Branding workshop at the CCCB (Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona), with executives from Rubicon and Young, Visit London and several Spanish city governments. We discussed everything from the Mayor of London (Ken and Boris) to the Bilbao floods and class wars, from Sydney’s beauty (and problems with architectural innovation) to Shanghai’s art scene (and problems with distinguishing between commercial advantage and cosmopolitan sensibility). The most interesting debate was about Catalan and whether a city should speak its own language in order to be itself, or Spanish, in order to please incoming CEOs who want their children to speak Spanish on vacations. Quite a testy atmosphere in the room when that was raised in those terms by one of the speakers (Welsh as it happens) – although it was of course also a way of reminding us and Barcelona and everyone else, that the CEOs and their HQs are really what every city is tilting at with increasingly expensive brand campaigns that seem, on first sight, to be about tourism and civic pride. And of course we talked about events – Expo, the tenth anniversary of the Sydney Olympics, the upcoming London Olympics etc. The London Games will be lots of fun, but the elephant in the room is, why would one spend quite so much money on fun and infrastructure when London is already so well positioned as a global city? Beijing wanted to say We’re Here, Shanghai wanted t say, Yes We Really Are Here; what is London going to say – We’re Still Here? Perhaps. I am still looking forward to the Games though – maybe the London games are for nostalgic ex-pats.