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Community Media-Making Practices and Aesthetics: Potentials and Pitfalls

Archival and Labor Precarity
Under Capitalism

Winter 2023

Vol. 23 no. 1

The articles in this issue examine a range of inextricable connections that bind contemporary film, media, and capitalism together. In “Scribes for Hire,” Suryansu Guha’s ethnographic and material research illuminates the complex demands of subtitling and the hierarchical structure of creative labor in the subtitling field that is essential to the global reach of contemporary Indian film and media. Sudipto Sanyal’s “Archives, Fevered: A Field Guide to Controlling History in the World’s Largest Democracy” analyzes the recent unilateral dismantling of archival, educational, and artistic cinema institutions by the BJP, India’s ruling political party, in relation to censorship changes the neoliberal Hindu-nationalist party has also enacted. Sam Thompson’s “Scene from Below: Cinema as Workers’ Inquiry” uses selected details of performance, space, and color in the Italian political drama The Working Class Goes to Heaven (1971) and the experimental Egyptian documentary Out on the Street (2015) as points of departure for exploring perspectives articulated, for example, by the UK collective Notes From Below, which directs attention to workers’ essential role in capitalist regimes.

                                                                                          ---Cynthia Baron, Editor   

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Scribes for Hire: Visibility, Identity, and the Notion of "Quality" in the Work of Subtitling in South Asia

by Suryansu Guha

The creative labor of subtitle writing has always been an essential, albeit underacknowledged, part of global film marketing. Notably, after 2008, it became a much sought-after component of Indian cinema. Producers wanted Indian films to secure more revenue from overseas audiences, which led to the demand for better-quality subtitles that would not “ruin” the movie-watching experience. This initiative had a transformative influence on the subtitling profession and the entire film industry in India. On average, a well-marketed Indian film went from making $2 to $8 million in 2008 to $20 to $30 million overseas in 2016. The essay shows how the work of prestige subtitle writers became integral to making Indian films accessible and attractive to a wider audience. The occupational identities of this boutique class of subtitlers became anchored in an idea of “quality,” which is derived in part from the systematic process of othering the more exploited underclass of subtitle microtaskers.

Image by Naveed Ahmed

Archives, Fevered: A Field Guide to Controlling History in the World’s Largest Democracy
by Sudipto Sanyal

In March 2022, four public film units in India were merged under a state-controlled, for-profit umbrella corporation. This was done with little communication or public engagement, and the opacity of the process fuels deep uncertainty about the future of these units and their individual archives, which are some of the biggest repositories of India’s audiovisual and cinematic histories. The merger also has profound ramifications for the democratic health of a country frequently identified as the world’s largest democracy. Filmmakers, scholars, critics, and curators, many of whom were interviewed for this article, view this merger as the latest assault by India’s right-wing majoritarian government on collective memory. This article provides a comprehensive background to the merger, its many opaque processes, and its ideological ramifications in the context of the government’s project of “making India great again” through a persistent rewriting of history. It is increasingly difficult to escape the feeling that this merger is the state’s attempt at an ideological makeover of the country’s cinematic institutions.*

*This article originally appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of Documentary and in its online edition in August 2022. It is reproduced here with permission. Documentary is the publication of the International Documentary Association, a non-profit media arts organization based in Los Angeles. (c) 2022 International Documentary Association.

Scene from Below: Cinema as Workers’ Inquiry
by Sam Thompson

Birmingham Alabama coal miners were unionized by the CIO in 1934 after strikes and resista

This essay argues for moving image culture as a politically valuable mode of workers’ inquiry—a transformative research practice that seeks to understand capitalist social relations from the point of view of labor. Workers’ inquiry reached its apex during an intense period of class struggle in midcentury Italy, where the methodology was embraced by a non-conformist tendency within the communist movement—operaismo (workerism). Film’s special access to spatiality and subjectivity allows it to make meaningful contributions to long-standing aporias of workerist theory: the relationship between political organization and worker spontaneity, the dynamics of class composition, and the importance of alienated experience for raising consciousness. Via readings of two factory-centered films—The Working Class Goes to Heaven (Elio Petri, 1971) and Out on the Street (Jasmina Metwaly and Philip Rizk, 2015)—this essay makes the case for space as an organizing force within the workplace and deskilling as a key moment in capitalist subjectivity formation.

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