Domingo en Plaza Almagro (Sunday in Plaza Almagro)
JENNIE GUBNER, University of Arizona
JAVEM Co-Editor Frank Gunderson had a chance to converse with Jennie Gubner, Assistant Professor of Music and Chair of the Applied Intercultural Arts Research Graduate Interdisciplinary Program at the University of Arizona. Gubner is a socially-engaged interdisciplinary scholar, violinist, and visual ethnographer who holds a Ph.D. from the UCLA Department of Ethnomusicology. In conjunction with Rebecca Dirksen, Gubner co-hosted the 2019 Society for Ethnomusicology pre-conference symposium, “Film as Ethnography, Activism, and Public Work in Ethnomusicology,” which was a significant inspiration for the creation of the Journal for Audiovisual Ethnomusicology and is now the Film and Multimedia Reviews Editor for the journal Ethnomusicology. Gubner is the maker of the film published here, Domingo en Plaza Almagro (Sunday in Plaza Almagro).
Jennie, can you tell us briefly how you got into filmmaking and what spurred your interest in music and film?
Before starting graduate school at UCLA, I lived in Argentina and Sicily, performing and documenting tango culture and Southern Italian popular music culture for a few years. I decided to pursue a Ph.D. when I realized I had a lot of stories I wanted to tell and research I wanted to pursue but didn’t have all the tools I needed to do so.
Ethnomusicology seemed like the natural next path forward in professionalizing my skills. But when I began studying, I felt frustrated at the inability of written text to convey the knowledge I wanted to share about these scenes I had been deeply embedded in for years.
I wasn’t a filmmaker before I started graduate school, but I was a photographer. I had studied photography since I was young, and it had always been something I loved. But even photography was falling short of the tools that I needed to tell the stories I wanted to tell about tango music culture.
The quick backstory is that when I graduated from Pitzer College with a self-designed Bachelor’s degree in International and Intercultural Studies through Languages and Music, I received something called the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. This fellowship asks undergraduate seniors to write a dream project to go anywhere in the world to do independent, experiential research for a year, stipulating that you should not formally study or work during that time. I was a violinist interested in tango culture, so I wrote a project to travel to eight countries over twelve months to learn about tango music practices.
Because I couldn’t formally study, it pushed me into the sort of fieldwork we do as ethnomusicologists all the time, and I became deeply immersed in these very small live music venues in Buenos Aires. These were tiny tango music bars where this incredible intergenerational cultural transmission was happening— passing tango music from older to younger folks, performing all night long without any amplification in dimly lit, packed spaces. These were intense spaces of musical belonging, and I’d never experienced anything like that.
I became interested in wanting to document those bars and to learn more about them. Still, they were such intimate, sensory music-making spaces that when you tried to turn those experiences into a static photo or even a transcription of an interview, it wasn’t enough to get across the depth and the richness of what made those places interesting to me—musically, culturally, and politically.
When I got to graduate school, I immediately started thinking about how I wanted to make films. And then, I had the privilege of falling under the mentorship of Dr. Aparna Sharma, an ethnographic filmmaker and critical film theorist in the World Arts and Cultures Department at UCLA. There was a famous ethnographic film program at UCLA run by the renowned Russian filmmaker Marina Goldovskaya, with whom Ben Harbert had studied, but she was out the year I was beginning to study. So, I went this other route, not the typical one. I entered the world of filmmaking through the door of visual and sensory ethnography and critical film theory.
Sharma’s practice-based film research uses montage editing and observational cinema techniques to explore the cultural practices of underrepresented communities in Northeast India. These approaches mapped perfectly onto my research interests in Argentina. So, I started studying film from the perspective of visual and sensory ethnography. And that just felt like home to me immediately, thinking about how I could use film as a sensory mode of knowledge production to contest dominant visual paradigms of tango culture, which is what I had wanted to do when I started graduate school, but without knowing that vocabulary.
So that’s how I started. Once I found Sharma, I took as many classes and independent studies as possible throughout my doctoral studies to get the skills I needed to do the work I do now.
It sounds like you were intuiting, to some degree, maybe even without a name, this thing that Ben Harbert calls “ciné-ethnomusicology.” It’s a term that is hard to define, but in my experience, I feel like I know it when I see it, you know, or I know it when I’m doing it. So, in your view, what is that?
Ethnomusicologists frequently go and do rich sensory ethnographic fieldwork in communities and then often produce texts that are missing a lot of the experiential qualities of what gets us interested in music in the first place.
Not to be critical of text and all the things that text can do, but there are many things text cannot do, even if we are talking about wonderful writers, you know? Even very evocative ethnographic writing still falls short of bringing us into sensory experiences of place.
I think ciné-ethnomusicology is an attempt to think about how the tools of cinema can help us evoke critical understandings of music as culture, drawing on all of the tools that come through cinema that are different from the tools that come through writing. And not that cinema has all the tools to reproduce lived experience, but it has different tools. We can embrace these when we consider how to use film in ethnomusicological research. For me, particularly, I value how we can use film to evoke experiences that are not necessarily being explained or analyzed directly—the idea of showing versus telling and, as such, using audiovisual vocabularies to craft and convey theoretical frameworks and orientations. One of the most powerful things about ciné-ethnomusicology is that we can work with our eye behind the camera and on the editing board to craft narratives so we can try to get somebody closer to the experience of being somewhere.
For me, that’s what ciné-ethnomusicology is all about. That’s why I’ve always been excited about the field of audiovisual ethnomusicology and support it, because I gain so much from the process of thinking and theorizing about music through the process of making films. I often read written articles and wish I could jump into them a little bit deeper to access some of those other elements of lived experience that are harder to bring into a written text.
Excellent. Very good. Can you talk more about the specific backstory of this film? What are we watching here?
Yes, I made four short films as part of my doctoral dissertation about neighborhood tango scenes in Buenos Aires. As I mentioned, before graduate school, I had fallen into this world of tango musicians that was hyperlocal in the sense that these were places and scenes where musicians were performing for one another and trying to cultivate a sense of locality around music-making that was different from what they called “for export” tango culture.
A big economic crash in Argentina in 2001 had changed daily life for everyone in the country, especially in Buenos Aires. As a response to that, and leading up to the crash, there emerged a resurgence of two kinds of tango culture. On one side, you had tango for tourism. The dollar was strong, and the peso was weak. A lot of tourists were coming in. In response, politicians, venue owners, and entrepreneurs began marketing tango and using it as an economic source of revenue. And on the other hand, you had public universities training students in tango performance, generating all these new musicians coming out that were looking for ways to experience, share and transmit tango culture beyond the work they were doing in the tourist world.
On the one hand, you had tango as a hypersexualized, exoticized dance genre shaped by a colonial gaze focused on women’s bodies in sexy dresses—the kinds of tango representations that made their way to Broadway and that define tango in the global imagination. And on the other, you had efforts to reclaim tango as something that was hyper-local, a way of building communities around music making and using music to navigate and make sense of complex experiences of urban life in contemporary Buenos Aires. Many old tango lyrics tell stories of urban struggles set in the early-to-mid twentieth century, so after the crash, those stories became relevant again.
My doctoral work focused on researching and telling stories about the poetics and politics of what I called not “for-export” local tango music scenes. While these local, underground music scenes could be found in many places across Buenos Aires, one theme central to many of them was the idea of the neighborhood. People would often reference how important these scenes represented lo barrial (a connection to the neighborhood as a symbolic and geographic place). Since this idea of “neighborhoodness” ran through a lot of the threads of conversations about what local tango was, this became a focus of my research.
That emphasis is not anything new in tango either. If you go back to early tango lyrics, many of those can be read as love stories that were simultaneously writing the experiences of new immigrants into everyday stories of neighborhood life in the city. You know, references to the streetlamp on the corner, the orange blossom in my mother’s patio, the old plaza, this, that, and the other.
The idea of neighborhoodness had already played an important role in tango history, in part immortalized through these romanticized narratives within tango lyrics. But then it became a key trope to this new generation of musicians who were reclaiming the genre and re-localizing it in the city in these different places. If most of the big tango shows were located downtown, many of these local scenes were developing in the city’s working- and middle-class neighborhoods.
Each of the films I made as a part of my dissertation project tries to bring viewers into a neighborhood space to evoke what it is like to experience tango in that context. Domingo en Plaza Almagro is specifically looking at an independent, grassroots tango festival that took place in the Almagro neighborhood, put on each spring by a group of mostly young musicians. These were four-day, maybe week-long, festivals that would celebrate all the different venues within a certain neighborhood to shed light on the places where tango was happening in these local contexts.
Quite commonly, these independent festivals would culminate in a Sunday afternoon event in the main plaza of the neighborhood. So this film is set in Plaza Almagro in the neighborhood of Almagro. The Sunday event would be the grand finale of the festival, where organizers would bring multiple bands together to play and host a public milonga (tango dance event). And this would occur in the middle of a public plaza full of neighborhood residents because people gather naturally in these plazas on the weekends. As such, they would become part of the ecosystem of these tango celebrations.
This film is all shot on one Sunday in Plaza Almagro to try to give someone like yourself the idea of what it would feel like to participate, to be an observer, you know, walking through the plaza that afternoon.
There are different layers in the film. From a visual perspective, I was trying to bring together different qualities of what that neighborhoodness looks and feels like—in terms of who’s in the plaza and who’s at the festival. I wanted to show how diverse and intergenerational the crowd is, in the sense that these events bring together people of all social classes in a very open public space, not a closed environment. And I wanted to evoke that feeling of being in and making music in a public place. From the perspective of the speeches given throughout the day, I wanted to explore how a romantic music genre and a romantic music festival can be imbued with all these forms of activism in which the romantic quality of the music-making is essential to that activism. Or, for example, how they’re using the sentimental aesthetics of being together in the neighborhood and how they use the lyrics of the songs that celebrate this neighborhoodness to say that tango is not a product for export only. This idea that tango is something that is part of us, part of our community, something that belongs to the neighborhood. And so, the film is layering this music-as-activism thread alongside a very sentimental day in the park alongside everyday images of life in the neighborhood. I was trying to use this imagery alongside the things that were said, the poems that were recited, and the lyrics that were sung to convey how that layering happens, where you end up with this combination of romance and politics coming together to create this alternative ethos of what tango means in the context of neighborhood festivals.
I have a further question about tango activism and the individuals who are involved with this. Is this activism part of a bigger project for them?
This is a good example of bringing up why writing and film for me go hand in hand. When I first started thinking about my dissertation, I wanted just to make films, and I didn’t want to write anything. Dr. Sharma said to me, “Don’t worry about that. You’ll have plenty to say.” And then, I ended up writing over 400 pages and making four films because I had a lot to say. Part of what I ended up needing writing for was to help contextualize and frame the backstory of how a romantic genre becomes a tool for activism. It’s so complicated…
Or not. Or it’s very simple.
Well, sure, but you’re dealing with framing these practices in dialogue with broad national, transnational movements. The short answer is that following the economic crash that happened in 2001—which was, in the eyes of many, due to poorly implemented neoliberal economic policies in the 1990s—there was a powerful anti-imperialist, left-leaning wave that ran through Argentina, led by the Kirchner governments that supported the idea of reclaiming an Argentine-ness that was not about trying to be the Global North. And as a part of that, a lot of participatory politics emerged in different parts of society, and the Kirchners were very active in trying to motivate young people to get involved and organize. Many of these grassroots social movements that emerged from the economic crash ended up informing cultural movements like the tango movement.
On the one hand, you have this sense of music becoming a vehicle for civic engagement and grassroots activism in the critique of neoliberalism. My friends and musicians in the tango scenes would talk a lot about how everyone wanted to be independent and individualistic in the 1990s. Then they would say, “But now we’ve realized that didn’t work, so we’re coming back together in solidarity and community to build things together.” And so that was part of the story. And then the other part is that in the late ‘90s, some of these old folks that had been singers back in the day were finding that young people were getting interested in tango again. They began to draw crowds in these little neighborhood bars that really weren’t politicized at all, performing sung tango with guitar accompaniment.
These bars were bohemian late-night hangouts where young and old musicians and tango fans would get together, drink wine, smoke cigarettes, and sing tango all night. Over time, these bohemian underground scenes and emerging politicized cultural movements gradually dovetailed together.
This process was accelerated when Mauricio Macri, the right-wing mayor of Buenos Aires at the time who ended up becoming president of the country, started really pushing tango as what he called “the soy product of the city of Buenos Aires.” He began framing tango as a source of economic revenue in a way that many artists felt denied value to the genre as a living part of popular and local culture. That annoyed a lot of musicians. For example, he took the annual Tango Festival, which had always happened in the summer in public spaces, and he put it in the middle of winter in a convention center so that it would coincide with the peak travel season for North American and European tourists.
Things like this were seen as violent acts for musicians and young artists, including many who had started playing music in those little bars, got frustrated enough that they started saying, “We can mobilize and organize to begin contesting these trends and to demand better conditions for artists in the city.”
There were also a lot of music venue closures around Buenos Aires at that time for no good reason other than noise policing the city, and many neighborhood tango venues were being shut down in violent and aggressive ways. All of that bled into this idea of starting a movement of tango festivals in the neighborhoods to show the people of Buenos Aires that tango does live in neighborhoods, that it is something that belongs to people, and that it can be reclaimed. As Ariel Ardit says at some point in the film, tango happens all year long, not only for one week in a convention center in the winter when it’s convenient for the mayor.
Let me ask you about your evocation of these experiences on film. You have a background in photography, and you’re a musician. So for myself, as a viewer of your work, when you mention photography, I recognized that immediately in terms of how you frame things and what you’re focusing on. The shadows in this film are amazing. And then your particular editing style in terms of timing as a musician. I mean that both in terms of timing cuts together with the musical cues and your own internal sense of the rhythmic edits external to the music. These are really clear. These are not skills that one usually learns in film school.
As you said, these qualities are a part of who I am and not something I was extensively trained in, so it’s difficult to talk about my process. But I can say that as soon as I learned how to make a timeline and begin editing, I felt that filmmaking was a natural way to tell stories.
To anyone thinking about working in film, who thinks that they can’t because they didn’t go to film school, I encourage you to try. If it feels terrible, maybe film isn’t your thing. But when I started playing with film, it felt so natural to me to have access to the visuality and sonority of the places I cared about and then to think about how to start layering those things together in a way that could shape an understanding for an external viewer or someone in the community. Ideally, I make these films to be meaningful to the local musicians and community that participated in them and to an external audience.
I have so much fun when I’m turning footage into short films. I was drawn to making films because I was so influenced by visual and sensory knowledge production. A lot of that came out of the way knowledge was theorized by observational cinema folks, visual anthropologists, and ethnographers. As I was learning to think about how knowledge is constructed through film, I had David MacDougall and Sarah Pink books on my desk for years.
One of the techniques that I picked up early on was that I would never go into a filmmaking project with a script or a predetermined idea of what I was doing. I would instead go in with this idea of themes. I knew the themes I wanted to document, and in this case, I wanted to document this idea of lo barrial, or neighborhoodness, as it related to local tango scenes. The four films have a lot of the same themes because these were the overarching themes of my dissertation. How can you evoke locality? How can you evoke neighborhoodness? How can you evoke this idea of sentimental activism? How can you evoke musical intimacy and the human relationships that are at the heart of these scenes that make them not just abstract ideas but about real people and their real relationships to and through sound?
Those would be the things that would guide me as I wandered around the plaza with my camera. I would film abstractly anything that fell into those categories for me. Later, I would sit down, watch it all, and then pull out the things I thought spoke best to what I was trying to evoke. So that’s why you see little vignettes of someone eating a sausage on the corner, someone unloading a beverage truck, children playing, an old man walking slowly with a cane, because that was all part of the aesthetic of this neighborhood. I’d lived in that neighborhood for a long time. So I was always also asking myself, “What is it that makes this a neighborhood for me?” And then, “What is it that makes it a neighborhood for others?” based on my understanding of how others experienced and talked about why neighborhoodness was meaningful to them in Almagro.
The natural length of the films that I’ve always made is about ten to fifteen minutes because that’s about where I usually feel like I’ve said what I need to say about a certain idea. I’ve always felt that these shorter films can be sequenced together as a series that can also tell a bigger story. But I sometimes wonder if making a much longer film would require a different process. But this length seems to work particularly well for making these kinds of evocative shorts. These films were made to be shorter vignettes to be circulated accessibly online. As such, I think our digital attention span on computers is shorter than what it is in a cinema. So for me, making those fragments so that then people can watch the fragment they want or watch them all in a sequence has worked well.
Perhaps part of why I began making short films is that I was always balancing filming with being in scenes in other ways—as a performing musician, an audience member, or a community photographer. If you spend your life with your eye behind your camera, you’re going miss out on living and being present in your fieldwork in other ways that are so important. I’ve always tried to be intentional about what and how much I film and to resist the temptation to feel like I have to be capturing footage all the time. Instead, I try to take my time to walk slowly, look slowly, and then film the things that speak to me and are connected to what I most care about.
There are a lot of ways to film. You can film saying, “I just want to film this concert as best as I can,” or “I want to film this interview,” or “I want to film this space.” But when you take something a little bit more abstract, like “I want to film an idea,” we move to another more theoretical level. In this way, I was influenced by David McDougal’s writings about social aesthetics. What are the social aesthetics that make neighborhood tango scenes what they are? How do you film a social aesthetic? That’s where I came up with those themes. I was thinking about elements that make up the social aesthetics of neighborhood tango scenes. This approach allows a certain playfulness and imagination when you go back to create the sequence because you allow yourself to embrace the fictional elements of ethnography in saying, “I don’t have to make this 100% representationally accurate of the timeline of events of that day. What I need to do is make this as accurate as I can to these feelings, these social aesthetics, and these themes that I’m trying to explore.” That has been very liberating for me, in embracing that imaginative and creative process of filmmaking as an art form and distancing from some approaches to ethnographic filmmaking that were more interested in representational accuracy, for example, in observational cinema, the idea of using the “the long shot” to bring people into the temporality of a moment or place. That approach never spoke to me, so I have never had a problem chopping up, rethinking, and reimagining my footage as long as the final product felt similar to my lived and embodied experiences of a place or idea.
Have you had feedback from those who are in your films about your film? Are you showing that to them? What are they saying? How are they experiencing it?
Yeah, as I said, these movements were very grassroots. They call them a pulmón, which in Argentine Spanish means “from the lung,” meaning that everyone is putting their heart, sweat, and tears into making these movements happen. No one was receiving any public funding to put on these festivals. They were completely independently organized.
And while I was doing my fieldwork, I felt like everyone did their part and that one of the parts I could do other than playing my violin and taking photos—which I did a lot of—was to tell these stories in film. When I would create these films and share them back to members of these communities, there was a sense of feeling seen and heard in ways that were meaningful and different from other mediated representations of tango culture. First, the focus is on music. This film has a little dance, but most of my research is about music. And rarely do you see anything about tango that doesn’t involve dancers. So that already was important. Then the idea of really bringing these themes forward that weren’t just the themes I cared about, but that were themes that I had gathered from what was meaningful to the musicians I’d been working with, I think those themes resonated with them. And that meant a lot to me. The best experiences I’ve had as a filmmaker have been seeing members of the scenes full of pride and emotion, watching these stories, and feeling seen and represented through them. Knowing that I could craft stories in ways that got to the heart of what they were trying to do as artists and activists was extremely validating.
Another film that I made, which is probably the one that I’ve shown the most, is about a bar called Lo de Roberto. In this film about the plaza, there’s a little snippet from this other film, A Common Place, that I made about that bar where the Almagro scene started. A lot of people have filmed that bar because it became an iconic neighborhood space. Some of the most meaningful comments that I received about my work were how different my film felt compared to others made by journalists who came in or the other filmmakers that had come to document this space. That speaks to the slowness and intentionality of the ethnographic process. More than making films about places or scenes, I’ve tried to make films about the feelings of places and scenes, and I think this emphasis on feelings of intimacy sets my work apart. I think one question that runs through my work is, “How do you film social intimacy in music making, and how do you do that in such a way that you can evoke those feelings again for people that participated in those moments, as well as others seeing a scene for the first time?”
I have felt very supported by the local communities. I made these films to try to challenge global stereotypes about tango culture. If they can be used as classroom tools for courses like “Music in World Cultures” and “Latin American Music,” great. If I can create some media that can help destabilize these very persistent exoticized stereotypes about tango culture, great! But I think for me, what has felt most meaningful is to be able to, at the moment that these artists were working hard to accomplish something in these scenes, to be there and produce media for them that felt meaningful and that they can hold onto.
This film was shot almost ten years ago. Sometimes I’ll hear from someone saying, “Oh, I ran across one of your films, and I watched, and it all came back to me in a wave of emotion!” Because a lot of things have changed. Relationships have changed, bands have changed, and people have passed away. So that’s meaningful too, that their emotional content stands the test of time. Even this morning, when I was re-watching the film, I had tears in my eyes, remembering many of the people in it who are no longer around—Osvaldo Peredo, the older singer featured in the film who died this year at ninety-one, Martin Otaño the MC who recited a poem for him, who lost a battle to cancer, among others. The film’s ability to bring us back to a moment in time and reconnect us with people integral to a community is really important to me.
Let me ask you this. Can you share, in terms of memory, any of your difficult artistic choices? Challenges or surprises that came up in the process of making this film?
I don’t think anything comes to mind because this film was easier. I had a finite amount of film footage that was from one day. So, I challenged myself, “I’m not going use any footage that I didn’t film this Sunday in the park in Plaza Almagro.”
I had lots of other footage I could have drawn on, but I chose to use only the footage from that day. As I was saying about editing, I think I get into a certain flow state when I’m working on something, and I think this film just came together.
One challenge that I can talk about in terms of filmmaking in general is that I think there’s this idea about filmmaking that we have to be perfect and that to do it, you have to do everything right, and you have to have all the right equipment and hold it all the perfect way and edit everything in, you know? It is important to be transparent about that.
I couldn’t be perfect! I was one woman with a Canon DSLR 7D, running around a plaza in Argentina with a violin on my back. In an ideal world, I would have loved to have been able to record sound with better equipment. Back then, my setup was a Canon 7D and an H4N Zoom audio recorder, but they weren’t attached to one another. I would have to have my camera in one hand and the audio recorder in the other. It’s been a while, but I think some of the sound in this film comes from the Zoom, but not all of it. During some of the performances, I would give my audio recorder to someone to hold in the crowd. But that didn’t always work, maybe I would give it to someone to hold, and they would start having a loud conversation, and that audio would be blown. So, I would just use the sound from my camera, which, if you asked any well-trained filmmaker, would probably start twitching. But it’s okay. It worked!
I think the reason that it worked is that you were able to move around in those spaces without having to worry about any assistants or coordinating that particular kind of ballet, which, as you know, is useful in some filmic spaces, but not all.
Yeah! And that was what was important to me. Sure, it was annoying, and I would get frustrated and wish I had a nice microphone in front of my camera. Back then, it was a little harder. Now it’s easier to attach microphones. But it was tricky with those earlier iterations of DSLRs that didn’t have monitors to manage external sound recording as easily. It was easier to use the internal mic, but absolutely, I would do it all the same way versus trying to bring in a team for a larger production. I never wanted to work in that way. The plaza was a bigger open space, but when I was working in the bars, all the other films I make are in these tiny spaces, I never wanted to create that interference that comes with crews and bigger equipment. That’s just a part of the nature of making choices that make you feel most comfortable accomplishing your goals. But when I hear films made with more robust sound equipment, I notice.
Can we talk about your particular aesthetic having to do with open access and distribution? Where do these films sit, and who has access to them?
Of course. Thus far, all the films I have made live either on YouTube or on Vimeo. I feel very strongly about making films that can be circulated in public ways and that can be easily accessible to the communities where they were made. Because I work in scenes, it’s not just that I’m making a film about one family, and I can give them a copy of the film and then put it in an academic archive. Music scenes are fluid, and I want the films to be there for the next generation of young tango musicians that might be searching for stories. If a musician’s aunt or uncle, or grandmother wants a copy of a film, I want them to be able to access that easily. I can’t anticipate who these pieces might be meaningful for, so I want to keep them available so that that access is there. I also have spent a lot of time living outside the United States and felt the frustration of our international academic community, including many ethnomusicologists, in talking about how difficult it is to gain access to a lot of the films that our colleagues are making because they get put behind these paywalls. In the States, we often say, “Oh, don’t worry, just have your university library buy that.” But that’s not realistic in many parts of the world. And so those conversations also sit with me when I think about what to do with my films, and I prefer to keep them accessible and open, compared to getting them into a publishing system where somebody might tell me where they can’t be. I realize that may not be the case for all things. And luckily, we’re moving towards more open-access publishing in general. Hopefully, we will eventually get to the point where things can be published through an academic film press and made completely open to the world. But until I know exactly how to do that and where to do that, I have preferred to leave these pieces open, circulated freely online through Vimeo, YouTube, social media, and my website.
What advice would you have for an aspiring filmmaker? You know, someone who is interested in filmmaking but hasn’t taken a step into moving in that direction? And maybe, more specifically, someone involved in music or music production. They have an interest in filmmaking, but they’re not quite jumping.
First, recognize that there are many ways of working in film in ethnomusicology. Not everyone needs to be making full-length documentaries. Not everyone needs to follow the mainstream theories and approaches to filmmaking taught in many ethnographic and documentary film programs. I strongly encourage you to use theory to understand why you’re using film. I encourage this for two reasons. One, because it can be very inspiring in shaping and helping you articulate why you’re turning to this other medium to begin with. A lot of people want to use film before they understand the language of exactly why it is that they want to use film. And I think if you can find that language and you can articulate that language, with the help of others that have walked a similar path, you can feel much more empowered and inspired in the process of how you want to go about doing what you’re doing. Whether that then takes you down the road of making music videos, full-length films, ethno-fictions, abstract experimental pieces that remix archival footage, or creating live performances, websites, or installations with film components. There are so many things you can do, but I encourage beginning filmmakers to figure out what’s most inspiring to them first and then align their work with others that are excited by similar approaches.
I advise new filmmakers to start by looking for the film or audiovisual projects that inspire them and figure out who is writing about filmmaking or digital knowledge production in a way that makes sense to them. And then play and see what starts feeling like a natural way to work through and share ideas. Film can feel very intimidating if you haven’t done it before. I would hope to make it less intimidating by reminding people that it’s a medium that can be endlessly playful and creative and that we, our generation, and younger generations, are so digitally literate that you have a lot of skills you don’t realize you have in editing audiovisual stories and thinking, even theorizing, in audiovisual ways. Be imaginative and start making things and see where it takes you. When I started, I thought I’ll make a short film, and then I’ll start making long films. And then I found that I liked making short films and have been doing so ever since.
I also encourage those new to film to be playful with format, in the sense that, for me, it has always been liberating to know that I don’t need to put everything into my films. I make these films to live in different worlds and to accomplish different things at different times. They can live alongside long academic texts, they can live alongside short blurbs that contextualize a bit of the backstory of what they are, and they can live on their own as they circulate through informal social channels. When people watch these films, I don’t worry if they don’t always understand all of the backstory. I hope there are valuable things to be learned even if you don’t get all the references and nuances. I think it is liberating to be reminded that we, as academics, don’t always have to explain everything in so much detail. Often it is the feeling of a place, an experience, or an idea that stays with us longer than all the details surrounding an event. Producing and sharing feelings about experiences of music-making has always been tremendously important in my scholarship, far from a trivial element of what academic knowledge should be. I have found that not putting everything in the film has made the films themselves more flexible and how they can be used with different kinds of public audiences. I think if students try to articulate who their primary public audience is when they begin making a film, it can help dictate editing and aesthetic choices and storytelling choices that can demystify the process of what to include and why. Then, once the film is complete, you can begin to imagine where else the story can live and what it needs to be meaningful in other contexts.
We’re in an exciting time with JAVEM coming out and the growth of various interest groups in audiovisual ethnomusicology. There’s more solidarity and peer support than there was in the past. Not that there weren’t filmmakers, but nowadays we are collectively expanding the idea of what ethnomusicological filmmaking, or perhaps cine-ethnomusicology can do and what forms it can take, and how it can be used.
Along these lines, another important piece of advice is to find people that can support you. Whether it’s people at your institution, other graduate students, faculty somewhere else in the world, or people in or outside and beyond the ethnomusicology world. Find people who can listen to you and give you feedback in a way where you feel you’re being validated that this work, the labor you’re putting into trying to understand this other medium of knowledge production, is being respected. Because if you weren’t trained to think in cinematic ways, even if you’re a wonderful advisor, it can be very difficult to mentor someone trying to do that. It’s really like speaking in another language. So I think that sometimes we need to look beyond our immediate faculty mentors to find someone who can give us the support we need to develop the critical approaches to filmmaking that will allow us to legitimize our work within the field is a really important step. Furthermore, this process can also give you the skills and language needed to then help your mentors learn new ways of thinking about scholarship, which can be rewarding for all. So if you’re feeling alone, try to find that mentorship, which will help you feel more confident in developing your skills.
At the University of Arizona, I am Chair of an innovative new Graduate Interdisciplinary Program in Applied Intercultural Arts Research. This program brings together students from different arts backgrounds to think about how to use research in the arts to address social issues in the world in applied ways. Developing this program has reminded me how much there is to gain from bringing together students from different disciplines in the arts. We often get boxed into our own disciplines, interdisciplinary as they may be, and miss the opportunity to think about what other art fields can bring to the ways that we think about music and researching music. For example, I highly recommend that ethnomusicology students interested in filmmaking explore discourses in arts-based research and practice-based research, emphasizing the creative ways through which we can produce and transmit knowledge. My work is deeply influenced by ethnographic field methods but has also been deeply informed by other ways of doing and making that emphasize the potential of creativity and imagination in producing and co-producing knowledge about the world. Sometimes it’s easy to fall into the trap of having a limited understanding of what ethnomusicological film should be. I encourage future filmmakers to boldly and radically reimagine all the different ways that audiovisual formats can tell stories and/or produce new ways of knowing that are meaningful.
In my new research, I am now exploring how to create interactive websites that include short films alongside commissioned murals and other kinds of texts, as well as opportunities for students and community members to engage with and contribute to the material, thus building open spaces for dialogue around issues related to music, and in the case of this new work, healthy and creative aging. Once again, I find myself in new territory where I don’t know exactly what I’m doing, how to do it, or what the product of these explorations will be. However, I am excited, motivated, and inspired to be exploring new avenues of research, much like I was when I began working in film. I know when I’m a little scared and a little excited that I’m in the right place and doing the kind of work that is most meaningful to me as an applied, creative, and community-engaged scholar.
Thank you, Jennie. It’s been a real pleasure listening to you explain your work and process, just hearing you as a teacher talk about what you do and talk about the possibilities with film in our field. Do you have any other things we missed in conversation that you’d like to touch upon?
I was thinking that I did write this very lengthy dissertation about the poetics and politics of music-making in neighborhood spaces. And yet sometimes, while watching one of these ten-minute films, I think that if you really watch them and allow yourself to learn from what you’re seeing, a lot can get across in different, more affective, experiential ways. As you said, it’s so complicated, but maybe it’s so simple. Sometimes we can articulate things using audiovisual languages in less time, whereas with academic text, we need a lot more space to build up all the different analytical, historical, and theoretical details to get someone to a similar place.
So, in the case of this film, I didn’t intend to, nor did I want to include all those details I shared today about the recent history of Argentine politics. But I would hope that in watching this film, you get a sense that there’s a grassroots nature of how this movement is coming together, and a coming together of a bohemian tango music scene and activist ways of cultural organizing, all rooted in tropes of neighborhood life. That’s why I filmed taking down the chairs at the end of the night and why I included the clip from the other film. I wanted to show the labor behind making the day happen, as well as the lineage within the neighborhood, of honoring Osvaldo before he performed and then reminding people that he was also the iconic singer from the bar on the corner. I wanted people to hear Ariel talk about how he started his career in this small, Bohemian scene that shaped his life and then to hear him say that tango is something that belongs to everyone and not just tourists. I mean, it’s all there, just concentrated down into a ten-minute experience.
Filmmaking often allows me to articulate what’s most important about my research in a way that sometimes is harder for me to do in writing. With writing, sometimes it is easier to get lost in too much explanation and backstory. When I make these sorts of sensory vignettes about issues I care about, they allow me to theorize through the making of the filmed material in a way that then allows me to more easily expand upon those ideas through writing. That has been important in my own scholarly process, knowing that I prefer to start by making films and then expand upon those films’ ideas through writing.
In this way, it wasn’t that I wrote a dissertation and then made some films. Instead, I made the films, and each time I would finish a film, then I would sit and write and think about how writing could complement what I had created through film. Ultimately, I learned that for me, the process of turning fieldwork into research came most easily when I could work first in a medium that was more experiential than written text. Filming and film editing are not just tools for gathering data. They represent a critical approach to being, exploring, understanding, processing, crafting, and transmitting knowledge about the world.
Absolutely. I understand that completely. It’s so exciting speaking to you about your work. Thank you so much for taking the time to do so.
Frank Gunderson is a well-known musicology professor at Florida State University (FSU), having formerly taught at universities in Ohio and Michigan. His research and instructional interests are centered on the interaction between music and Intangible Cultural Heritage. African history, Islam, musical labor, veterans’ issues, biographical approaches to music, refugee groups, and documentary films are among her other interests.
Gunderson’s work in academia has resulted in a noteworthy collection of writing credentials and audio recordings centered on his areas of interest. Many of his major works document East Africa’s musical history, with a special focus on Tanzania and its musicians. He is particularly well-known for his work with the Society for Ethnomusicology and its scholarly journal, Ethnomusicology and is co-founder and co-Editor-in-Chief (together with Benjamin Harbert) of the Journal of Audiovisual Ethnomusicology. He has also served as the SEM Journal’s Film, Video, and Multimedia Review Editor, and has twice been a guest editor of the journal World of Music.
Jennie Gubner is a socially engaged interdisciplinary scholar, violinist, and visual ethnographer. She works at the University of Arizona as an Assistant Professor of Music and Chair of the Applied Intercultural Arts Research Graduate Interdisciplinary Program. She holds a Ph.D. from the UCLA Department of Ethnomusicology, and is a Senior Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health. Her research interests include applied approaches to the study of music and dementia and creative aging, intergenerational tango bars as spaces of urban belonging in Buenos Aires, participatory music scenes as vehicles for social activism in South America and Southern Italy, and ethnomusicological filmmaking. She has published her research and films in premier research journals, organized multiple international conferences and collaborations around audiovisual ethnomusicology, and presented her research at major music, humanities, and medical conferences. As a violinist, Gubner plays Argentine tango and folk music, bluegrass & old-time fiddle, and Sicilian popular music.