Don's Diary: Cuban cinema lecture tour

December 7, 2001

As I arrive in Chicago en route to Toronto, an immigration officer calls out instructions on how to fill in our arrival cards, then adds, less officiously: "The only place where we like to see lines in America is in Disneyland." On Thursday, reports come through of Disney suffering a fourth quarter downturn of 68 per cent net.

I am in Toronto to see Thomas Lahusen, a cultural historian who is working with me on a film archive research project. The archive, based in North London, is a unique collection of documentaries from the former communist countries of Eastern Europe and other socialist countries. We have nearly finished the pilot study and are drafting an application to fund the next stage: the creation of an electronic catalogue and some DVDs.

After resting and visiting cousins on Monday, the next day serves as a trial run for a lecture on Cuban cinema that I am giving on Saturday at a symposium on Latin American cinema at Notre Dame. The audience is small but the discussion is rich.

On Wednesday I meet Ron Pruessen, chair of history at Toronto University, who is excited by the film archive project and proposes a plan of collaboration that ought to strengthen our application.

The third time I go through airport security, returning to Chicago, they find a pair of tweezers in my baggage - I had forgotten about the sewing kit I always carry with me. I spend the day with old friends and join an interesting interdepartmental seminar at Northwestern University, applying Pierre Bourdieu to American experimental film.

Up before dawn to get to Notre Dame, where, after lunch with members of the film faculty, I introduce a screening of my film about human rights, which was shot when I spent a semester at Duke University last year. It features the Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman and is openly critical of the American media's handling of human-rights issues. I wonder how it might go down after September 11, but the response is positive. In the evening, another friend, the film-maker Jill Godmillow, takes me to dinner to meet some of her students. Jill believes there is a deep contradiction in US policy: Bush cannot convincingly pressurise Israel to stop attacks on the Palestinians because it is a policy he agrees with, but you cannot deal with al-Qaida simply by sending assassination squads into Afghanistan.

The conversation with the students is heartening. Despite some confusion, they have many doubts about not only the efficacy of present US policy, but also its foreign escapades over the past 50 years. They also assure me that such doubts are growing, although it will take a long time before the American media is likely to acknowledge them.

The symposium is truly stimulating, and my paper goes down very well. The event concludes with a screening of a new Cuban film, Waiting List , in the presence of the director, Juan Carlos Tabío, and US security men, invited in by the university because of threats of disruption presumed to originate from members of the Cuban exile community.

Arriving at Duke to repeat the Cuban cinema lecture feels like coming home, but here no one needs prompting and I discover the most sophisticated analysis of events since September 11 yet, among colleagues and my graduate students of last year. Doubtless this is atypical and predictable, since chair of the literature programme Fredric Jameson, a leading critical theorist, has already led a teach-in. He ironically likens the American media to professional wailers at a Middle Eastern funeral.

I am intrigued to learn of a visit by two Nato officers on a campus briefing tour in which one of them, an African-American, privately admitted there might be a "cultural" - read "racial" - bias in the American response, and the other, a Brit, that a military solution was, translated into colloquial language, impossible, stupid and dangerous. This was, I think, not disproved by the fall of Kabul.

Michael Chanan is principal lecturer in cultural and media studies, University of the West of England.

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