Sunday, December 27, 2015

Cultural Integrity and Pacific Representations


Earlier this year, as part of the annual Guam International Film Festival or GIFF festivities, longtime juror and supporter of the festival Tom Brislin, who is a professor of film at University of Hawai'i, Manoa gave a presentation on the need for Chamorros to join the larger conversation in the Pacific about preserving cultural intellectual property and also developing an infrastructure to help make future film project in the region more accountable to the lands and the lives of which they are making use. He referred to a number of issues in Hawai'i, New Zealand and Australia, where traditional culture was being snatched up and copyrighted by corporations such as Disney, and how the cultures of the Pacific continued to be portrayed in racist and orientalist ways, which can end up teaching those inside and outside of the Pacific terrible lessons. I really enjoyed his presentation and I'm hoping some students caught onto the conversation he was attempting to start locally.

Below is a column he wrote for the Pacific Daily News, prior to GIFF and his presentation.

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Preserve Cultural Integrity
by Tom Brislin
Pacific Daily News
9/12/15

Along with ancestral lands, Indigenous intellectual property has been appropriated by colonizing dominant cultures and in most cases placed in “public domain,” allowing it to be commodified at the expense of, and at a loss to, the original authors. While filmmakers would go through extensive negotiations and payments for the rights to a piece of copyrighted Western music as simple as “Happy Birthday,” they could freely pluck a traditional Kantan Chamorita without a single thought toward clearance or royalty. Because such songs, chants, dances, myths and legends are not in “fixed form,” have no definitive or registered single or group authorship, and often are of indeterminate age, they are relegated to common ownership: What was yours is now ours. What you created, we will profit from.

Along with commercialization, the representation of indigenous or local cultures too often is seen through a distorted lens that reflects, at best, stereotypes, and at worst racism as seen in the reactions to portrayals of Hawaiians in films as diverse as “Lilo and Stitch,” “50 First Dates,” and “Aloha;” Southeast Asians in “No Escape;” and Native American actors walking off the set in protest over Adam Sandler’s western parody “The Ridiculous Six.” Guam has experienced a similar mixed bag of on-screen representation.

Western law abrades indigenous customs with the same force felt in the conflict of values between individualist vs. collectivist cultures. But culture is not so easily codified. While contemporary law, led by the First Amendment and copyright, grants “the right to do,” filmmakers still need to consider what is the right thing to do, and what is the right way to do it.

In pondering the development of a film industry, Guam media and policymakers can vigorously discuss not only viable investments in industry infrastructure, but also necessary investments in preserving cultural integrity. Quasi-autonomous agencies such as film commissions can serve outside production companies as a one-stop shop in securing locations and permits, while they serve the island economy promoting local providers in technical filmmaking and support services, such as camera operators, sound technicians, electricians, equipment rentals, costumes, props, transportation and craft services (food and beverage).

Provide education

Just as importantly, a film commission or similar agency can ensure that outside production companies become familiar with and respect local customs and traditional practices. It can create educational videos, link cultural consultants to productions, provide checklists of cultural considerations, and encourage contributions to island media education through internships or direct donations to university, community college and high school programs.

Similar advances in cultural cooperation have been spearheaded by Maori, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander filmmakers with production companies coming to New Zealand and Australia. They provide guidance in how to educate and encourage cultural knowledge and acknowledgment of cultural and creative practices as an integral, and perhaps contractual, part of the production process for offshore companies.

As Guam debates its political identity through evolving modes and processes of self-governance, and celebrates its cultural identity through the Guam International Film Festival (Sept. 26-30) and next year’s Festival of Pacific Arts, an opportune time arises to contemplate how to preserve cultural dignity, protocols, respect, representation, and authorship while encouraging the development and expansion of an industry grounded in both art and commerce, and where cultures regularly meet on and off screen.

Chamorros and other Pacific islanders are inherent storytellers. When they intersect and interact with the film industry, it is the bringing together of tremendous story-telling cultures. Each has its own protocols and customary ways. They need not be defined by conflict to have a good story ending.

Tom Brislin, a University of Hawai’i associate dean and professor of media studies, will explore this topic in a master class, part of the Guam International Film Festival, at 11 a.m. Sept. 29 in HSS Room at the University of Guam.

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