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Opening Remarks at Screening Scholarship Media Festival

I gave the following remarks to open camra's 4th Annual Screening Scholarship Media Festival on April 2, 2016.

Good morning everyone! To begin, let me introduce myself, my name is Mariam Durrani and as the Director of SSMF 2016, I want to welcome you to our second day of film screening, art installations, and conversations that center on our theme of Race, Media and Social Justice.

This morning I wanted to discuss the theme as a way to frame our conversations today. Last year a group of us were discussing our frustrations about the crisis this country is facing, and has been facing for a very long time. We believe that this crisis is personal and this crisis is political. It incites such visceral emotional responses such that we can no longer avert our gaze. It's a crisis that has forced us to reanimate debates, some old and some new, about our position as residents of these United States, to interrogate why and how we do the kinds of work that we do and to what ends.

What does it mean to live in a country where we are constantly bombarded by mediatized images of black boys and girls being violently assaulted by the police, sometimes even by their own school’s security personnel, hear about Latino Americans who are characterized as criminals and rapists by a leading contender in the presidential race, and the fraught experience of Muslim Americans who face a constant fear of prosecution by a public that sees them through only the lens of “terrorist” and ‘outsider’? And that’s not to even speak of other populations that have been almost completely erased from our contemporary political imaginaries: native populations, for example, whose public image is most commonly associated with a football helmet and the slur that is still, horrifyingly, that team’s name.

camra’s own political stance has come to the fore during this time of crisis. While we are dedicated to scholarly critique, to imagining film and media more broadly as an alternative to text, a vision and mission that has been playful and, even sometimes rightly critiqued as insular, we find ourselves faced with the truth that our message is meaningless unless we can animate it with the explicit, if not the ex-plicit, demand that our scholarly work address and contribute to the far more pressing confrontations that have become commonplace in the year 2016.

Our festival this year, Race, Media and Social Justice, attempts to confront these confrontations as it were, to bring scholars, activists, and artists in conversation whose media making projects take social justice as a first assumption, an element without which the projects themselves cannot exist. We ask these media makers to share with us exactly how their media making practices drive their social change agendas. What do these digital artifacts allow that other forms of engagement might not and, as importantly, what are the limits to what digital activism can be?

Over the course of this Saturday you will be presented with an array of media forms – animations, twitter feeds, traditional films, installations – that allow us as audience members to enter into worlds of precarity, struggle, and hope. Last night, we had the opportunity to listen to Marc Lamont Hill and Michele Stephenson as they discussed the particularities of mediamaking for and about race in America. During the conversation, Michele asked us to be storytellers, to start the dialogue.

Today, we are continuing on the dialogue that started last night, building upon their thoughts, presenting work highlighting social justice endeavors in racialized publics of all sorts – from the university, to our public school system, to our right to the city, to our legal institutions. Sometimes these racialized publics fall neatly along a black/white binary and other times they blur these lines, especially when immigrant populations enter into America’s racial history. To what extent can these various social justice movements be allied and to what extent are they necessarily distinct?

We also highlight projects at Penn whose goals merge social change with scholarship. For example, the School of Social Policy and Practice gives us the Penn Top 10, a unique endeavor that translated some of the most pressing social justice research articles into animations accessible by a public beyond the university. The Penn Law School’s Visual Legal Advocacy course, led by Dr. Regina Austin, presents videos they’ve created as one method by which to advocate for redress for those on the margins of our legal system.

This year’s installation curator, Chris Vandegrift, has put together two amazing showcases. Last night at the Museum’s Pepper Hall Gallery, we saw the showcase titled Changing Delineations/Delineating Change, that asks: When does survival become resistance? Why should suffering be polite? What distinguishes an ally from an accomplice? Why is Blackness demarcated? What killings deserve to be documented? How is spectacle incentivized? And showcased projects, such I ain’t tragically colored, a projection-mapped multimedia installation that explores the issue of vulnerability in African-American communities by Tamika Galanis from Duke University, a large format print series titled How to Suffer Politely by Kameelah Rashad who is also featured on our tote bags this year, Kelly Gallagher’s From Ally to Accomplice, an experimental cinematic essay in three movements that explores the importance of being more than an "ally" in struggles against white supremacy, by sharing histories of committed accomplices John Brown, Marilyn Buck, and others, Color Bar by Roxanne Campbell, an interview-driven documentary project that examines concepts of race and masculinity in relation to Black identity in the US. Trail of Silence, a video installation that investigates the killings of unarmed civilians by police since 2000. And Chaser by Caleb Beckwith, a looped video installation that repurposes the medium of the ubiquitous news ticker (or “crawl”) as a vehicle for poetic articulation. These are still available today at the Museum, and I encourage you to walk over there and check them out.

In Annenberg today, we have our second installation showcase, titled Materializing the Moment, works that share an emphasis on documenting lived realities associated with processes of transition – crystallizing the effects of ongoing societal change at the level of everyday experience. We have four installations by four wonderful artists. Gabriel Dattatreyan’s film Across Oceans draws from over two years of ethnographic research and relationship-building in Delhi’s pan-African enclaves, engaging with diasporic understandings of global Blackness within the unexpected context of urban India. The Other Side of Patriotism, a collaboration between Charles Davis and Matthew Nelson, is the cathartic manifestation of an artist's ongoing racial trauma – an American flag adorned with the names of Black men and boys who have been hunted and killed by police and citizens at-large. The film and the artwork are presented side-by-side, offering insight into the artist’s engagement with the modern racial moment. Sahar Coston Hardy’s A Rallying Cry for Justice is a collection of photographic prints documenting three protests organized in response to the killings of African Americans by police. And Amber Reed’s photographic prints from her work with South African school children mapping their communities, where these maps offer us visual perspective on the historical and contemporary racialization of South African landscapes.

These panels and installations are intended as openings, a starting point for further engagement, rather than ends in and of themselves. There are, of course, an infinite number of social justice issues that may not have been addressed and, we hope, these erasures will come up in conversation during and after our presentations. This festival is as much about the audience as it is about our speakers, so please bring your thoughts, emotions, stances to the fore, please tweet and share your thoughts on social media with the hashtag #SSMF2016. These extensions will allow us to go beyond what we as organizers have imagined as the purpose of this endeavor.

In some ways, I am reminded of the words of our founder and guide Dean John Jackson, who, when speaking of the filmic project argued that “every film begets its sequels” and here, we hope, that our media festival will beget sequel upon sequel upon sequel in forms that reflect camra’s deep commitment to political and scholarly dialogue in any and every media form imaginable.