Forum of the Real: The Sensory Cinema

by Daniel Ribas / 13 11 2016

The Forum of the Real in Porto/Post/Doc 2016 is dedicated to the theme "Sensory Cinema". The panels that make up the Forum can be viewed on this page.

Over the past two years, the Forum of the Real has discussed two dominant themes of contemporary cinema: on the one hand, the Real - as a concept of the festival itself - and, on the other, the imaginary. We can say that both concepts are two faces of the same coin: that of the representation of the world, something that Stuart Hall has shown us to be, necessarily, ambivalent and in constant displacement. This year, we are looking for a new discussion, which is almost a variant of the previous ones: how do we get close to the real (understanding it as a constantly changing concept)? Visual anthropology is a discipline that is very concerned with this idea of the real. For this reason, the idea of a sensorial ethnography has emerged in recent years. It was this emergency that aroused our interest in the work of the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University which will have a special focus in this year’s Porto/Post/Doc.

According to Sarah Pink, a social anthropologist, sensorial ethnography “does not claim to produce an objective or truthful account of reality, but should aim to offer versions of ethnographers’ experiences of reality that are as loyal as possible to the context, the embodied, sensory and affective experiences, and the negotiations and intersubjectivities through which knowledge was produced.” This “sensory turn” in anthropology means a fragmentation of research, seeking to absorb information from a plethora of sensorial forms and giving them all the same qualitative value. In the field of anthropology, the “sensory turn” was also the stage for the valorization of the audio-visual record as a method of collecting and disseminating information.

The work of the Sensory Ethnography Lab follows these transformations, giving substance to the need of making an ethnography that reconciles the observation of the community with a sensorial aesthetic. For this, it was also important to value certain methods of filming – such as sound and its desynchronization with découpage – as well as the use of new technological tools, such as portable digital cameras, or even micro-cameras, capable of changing the point of view and even avoiding the manipulation of the ethnographer. SEL films are productions that seek the other, through classical ethnography – time as a marker of observation – but also through this sensory aesthetic. Examples include films such as Sweetgrass (Ilisa Barbash, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, 2009) or the multi-award-winning Leviathan (Véréna Paravel, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, 2012).

In addition, the idea of a sensory cinema can’t be separated from other theories associated with film studies and that have tried to deal with the issues of perception in the cinema – an almost centennial debate as the very art of making films. For Thomas Elsaesser, contemporary cinema – and especially world cinema – has offered stories from the perspective of a new realism. It is not a matter here of reviewing the positions taken by André Bazin in the defence of Italian neorealism, but rather of giving a new aesthetic position, which no longer privileges vision as the most operative sense of knowledge (in fact, as advocated by sensory ethnography).

The cinema of the new realism is, in fact, the sensorial cinema, the one that seeks, in the words of Elsaesser, to re-invest “in the ‘body’, ‘the senses’, skin, tactility, touch, and the haptic, to which corresponds in philosophy and evolutionary neuroscience the idea of the ‘embodied mind’.” Among others, the scholar quotes the filmmakers Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Tsai Ming-liang, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Michael Haneke or Kim Ki-duk.

This edition of the Forum focuses on the idea of a new sensory cinema, which promotes the human senses in their ability to observe the world in a multidimensional way. We will try to debate the marks of this cinema, as well as subjects related to the sensorial experience and that have dominated several areas of knowledge. Finally, we will listen to filmmakers who, in their filming practice, use and promote the existence of a sensory cinema.

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