CIFF 2010: Problema (2010)

Producer/Director: Ralf Schmerberg

2010 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

I learned a couple of days ago that the venerable Howard University in Washington, D.C., a bastion of learning for African Americans at a time when they were barred entrance to other colleges and universities and still a educator of choice in the African-American community, is dropping its 90-year-old philosophy degree programs. Said Richard A. Jones, professor of philosophy at Howard, in a recent interview in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, “The loss of this program—for fiscal considerations—reflects a growing trend: the elimination of humanities and social programs for more ‘practical’ training programs. It is a postmodern reenactment of the debate between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington over liberal education versus vocational training.”

This is only the latest example of how educational programs that train the mind are losing ground in the United States. Those lucky enough to go to college these days no longer see value in taking classes that have no “practical” application, and given how expensive higher education is and how difficult it is to get a decent job, even with a college education, it’s hard to fault them.

Nonetheless, when people lose the ability to recognize issues that go beyond their basic concerns and, more important, to grope toward answers, we will truly be lost. It is with urgency over the loss of our intellectual capital at a time when globalism has brought acute problems from around the world to all of our doorsteps that organizers were inspired to create the dropping knowledge project. From their website:

Founded in the summer of 2003, the dropping knowledge project was initially based in Berlin, Germany, and San Francisco, USA.

After the Table of Free Voices, on September 10, 2006, the organization divided into two independent groups. The Berlin-based team became Mindpirates e.V. and the US-based team dropping knowledge International. Today, Mindpirates e.V. remains solely responsible for the curation of the Table of Free Voices and of this website.

It is the Table of Free Voices that forms the substance of the different kind of documentary that is Problema. The film “documents” a real-life circumstance, but it is the opposite of what I usually like in a documentary: it is nothing but talking heads. Problema records what happened when 112 people the organizers wanted to hear—primarily heads of nongovernmental organizations and activists like human-rights champion Bianca Jagger and physicist Hans-Peter Dürr, artists like Wim Wenders, and professional thinkers like Cornel West—talked about the great challenges of our day. The unusual format of the roundtable discussion (and yes, it literally was conducted at a round table in Berlin’s Bebelplatz, where Nazis burned books) was to have moderators Willem Dafoe and Nigerian human-rights advocate Hafsat Abiola alternately read each of the 100 questions culled from the dropping knowledge forums and have each participant give his or her answer simultaneously. A camera set up in front of each seat recorded their messages, and these messages, shots of the event taken by Schmerberg’s cameras, and thousands of images illustrating the various topics under consideration comprise the documentary.

Questions came from people of all ages from all parts of the world. A child’s question “What is God’s religion?” is treated with as much consideration as an adult asking “Is there a modern form of colonialism?” The answers vary. To the question, “Should a person have the right to live anywhere they want?”—a question near and dear to my heart as a person who thinks nationalism has outlived its usefulness—some gave a simple, “Yes, of course.” Others delved into the issue of resources versus need and how the exploding global population has made traditional strategies of nomadism impractical. The reverse question occurred to others—do people have the right to stay where they are?—and cited eminent domain and expulsions, such as what happened to Native Americans, as another population problem. In answer to the colonialism issue, one woman smiled and said, “Yes. It’s called debt.” We’re all concerned about economic policies in the United States, but the problems of smaller debtor nations could soon be ours.

It took me a while to realize that everyone was speaking at the same time. The din of voices was distracting before I came to this realization, and then it was like a symphony of the world, a perfect illustration of the dialogue the organizers of this event have orchestrated on the Internet and that they wish to encourage in face-to-face meetings. As cinema, the film leaves something to be desired. It seemed that the same faces kept popping up; a Maori woman was shown several times, but we don’t actually hear her speak until nearly the end of the film. The quick-cut images that show everything from the famous look at the earth from outer space and the Chinese student standing up to a tank in Tiananmen Square to film clips from Wings of Desire and Things to Come provide some visual interest, and one certainly has to credit the production team for tackling the permissions that must have been a nightmare to negotiate. But the montages didn’t add much. I think I would have preferred fewer images, more carefully chosen, and more questions.

The important thing about Problema is that it recognizes that the world needs to relearn how to talk about its common concerns. That does not mean leaving it all up to politicians to take care of for us—we’ve seen the folly of that. Indeed, Schmerberg deliberately left government officials out of the conversation because, he asserted in the Q&A, they have access to all the major media outlets and can have their say all they want. He offered the welcome news that all of the questions and answers will be available for download and recutting, so that communities can tailor presentations to specific issues they might want to address. Thus, the documentary I saw will never be the final documentary; like Sita Sings the Blues, the public is welcome to enter the creative process and use the materials to invent new uses for the footage. I’m planning to join the discussion. I hope you will, too. l

There are no more screenings of Problema, but the free worldwide online premiere of Problema will occur on December 6, 2010, here.

Previous CIFF coverage

The Happy Housewife: A buoyant young woman falls into a dangerous depression following the birth of her son and must deal with her past. (The Netherlands)

Southern District: The decline of the Bolivian upper class gets a very personal treatment in this close examination of one La Paz family and the natives who work for them. (Bolivia)

Asleep in the Sun: Ingenious period film that shows the transformation of a troubled woman into someone whose personality her husband doesn’t recognize after a stay in a mental health clinic. (Argentina)

Tuesday, After Christmas: A beautifully photographed story of adultery poses a potent metaphor for Romania in its new prosperity. (Romania)

On Tour: A French TV producer returns from “exile” in America with a troupe of burlesque dancers to try to get back on top in this amiable, improvisational comedy. (France)

Circus Kids: The St. Louis Arches youth circus travels to Israel to join forces with the Galilee Circus to help bridge the gap between Arabs and Jews in this optimistic documentary. (Israel/USA)

The Matchmaker: Magical coming-of-age drama in which a teenage boy learns a message of love and tolerance from a Holocaust survivor. (Israel)

Ten Winters: Emotionally honest and lyrical study of a man and a woman whose initial attraction goes through many changes as they experience 10 years worth of living. (Italy)

Certified Copy: Elliptical tale of seduction by renowned director Abbas Kiarostami in which two strangers pretend to be a married couple in crisis. (Iran/Italy/France)

The Princess of Montpensier: The French Catholic persecution of Protestants forms the backdrop for this period drama about the travails suffered by a beautiful noblewoman desired by four men. (France/Germany)

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff: Legendary British cinematographer Jack Cardiff and others who knew him discuss his career, including such highlights as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. (UK)

Waste Land: A moving examination of the positive transformation of workers in Brazil’s largest landfill when artist Vik Muniz comes to photograph them. (Brazil/USA)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)

The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)

  • Greg Ferrara spoke:
    20th/10/2010 to 12:48 pm

    How depressing that students only find value in courses with “practical” applications. I have found, throughout my life so far, that my cultural knowledge has opened many more doors for me than any “practical” skill. My father always told me (he has his Bachelor and Masters Degrees in Economics) that it’s the English, History, Art and Philosophy courses that will get you in the door. What he meant was, if I was up for a job in which I had the skill and training necessary, and there were 10 other people with the same skill and training, it would be my cultural knowledge, my conversational skills, my ability to engage the world around me, that would push me past them. Not to brag, but I’ve never interviewed for a job I didn’t get (I only had two interviews the entire year I was laid off, and I got both of them, though the second one was admittedly for a different position than I interviewed for originally) and I thank my dad for that.

    What I’m trying to say is, knowledge of the world around us through the arts and humanities is just as practical as anything else. In my opinion, more so. People ignore literature, film, art, music and philosophy at their own peril. For instance, it’s always surprising to me, in the workplace, how few people can actually write well. Writing is a skill easily improved by reading and yet, most people seem to avoid reading good writing whenever they can.

    I love the idea behind this program though and absolutely want to use the footage myself and engage in this all I can. How exciting.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    20th/10/2010 to 1:07 pm

    Greg – Back in the Year Zero when I was in college, both my parents wondered what I was going to do with what I was studying – political science and all the humanities, including theology and philosophy, required by the core curriculum. I told them I was learning to think. They were kids of the depression and worried about my job prospects. The pressures are even greater today with kids who have grown up in a money-grubbing society.

    Enjoy cutting your own documentary out of this material. They have 11,200 recorded comments to choose from.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    20th/10/2010 to 4:06 pm

    “This is only the latest example of how educational programs that train the mind are losing ground in the United States. Those lucky enough to go to college these days no longer see value in taking classes that have no “practical” application, and given how expensive higher education is and how difficult it is to get a decent job, even with a college education, it’s hard to fault them.”

    Lamentably, this is true, and it’s a further repudiation of capitalism. Back in the 70’s when I was enrolled in undergraduate classes there was a far more relaxed and liberal attitude towards course selection, at a time when English, philosophy and the humanities were seen as far more promising than they are now, essentially because the main avenue of employemnt -teaching- was an attractive vocational option. With the sharp curtailment of federal and state funding, there has been a sharp drop in teaching applicants, leaving those already holding certificates to fight for the dearth of openings. To be honest I never gave any thought to what I would be doing when I enrolled in coarses on Greek drama, the Victorian Age, Existentialism and Chaucer. At the time I did what floated my boat and what I could successfully complete. I was a terrible math student and no interest in accounting nor economics. It was understood at the time that teaching would be the logical step forward, and I thought I bolstered my credentials by obstaining what is essentially now a meaningless Master’s degree in English literature, which earns me in my current school system an exta 1,000 a year! Ha! If I had gone down this path at present -as this documentary basically implies with it’s uncompromising reform – I would have been seen as impractical at best and a bit loony by the most cynical perceptions.

    Too bad this documentary utilized worthless montages and an overdose of talking heads, as many more questions (and answers) would have made it a far more provocative and worthwhile work. Still, it’s definitely within my sphere of interest and passion and I am deeply disturbed at what is going on in this country in regards to education and values.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    20th/10/2010 to 5:38 pm

    Sam – While I can’t call this a great doc from a cinematic point of view, I think it’s a real step forward in the evolution of film as a shared creative process and tool for communication. That’s why I wanted to write it up. This version of the film is not the final version. Greg might come up with something both of us would approve of highly. Regardless, the hope for change through communication is key to the purpose of the film, and it succeeds beautifully on that level. And I learned a few things as well, not happy things, either, like we cannot stop global warming.

  • MovieMan0283 spoke:
    21st/10/2010 to 10:03 am

    A fascinating project. Like Greg, I enjoy the idea of “giving the film over” to anyone who wants to recut it – maybe at some point I’ll take up the challenge. I’m a bit disappointed to see that, while they’ve cut off government officials, the invitees still seem to be celebrities – I would have been more interested in a roundtable of ordinary people, but perhaps that would not have gotten enough publicity. At least (as you seem to suggest) the questions are asked by regular citizens.

    I have a bit of a different view on the whole liberal arts/fine arts degree thing. I’m happy for Greg that this has been his experience but mine has been this – since graduating, I’ve worked in several very low-paying bookstores and in every case, to a person, the other employees (like me) have all been English majors, film majors, drama majors, etc. Oftentimes the education in question was quite expensive.

    I don’t like to see colleges dropping their liberal-arts program but to me the whole situation points less to the necessity for undergraduate liberal-arts than to the exaggerated necessity for college in general. I would prefer to see people pursuing opportunities for knowledge and experience outside of the university, instead of pouring so much energy and expectation into “the college experience” which I for one found to be rather overrated. Personally I’ve learned much more from reading and engaging in conversations like these than I ever did in a classroom.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/10/2010 to 10:30 am

    Joel – The Table of Free Voices had a huge diversity of people – “celebrities” made up a very small part of the group. Unfortunately, none of the comments had the names of the commenters below them, so I could only identify those whom I recognized. I have been unable to find a complete list of the participants, and the final credits rolled so quickly that I couldn’t catch names. I only looked for organization affiliation to determine the backgrounds – hence, I could see no government officials had been invited to the table. I’m sure that the recorded messages, which will be released in December, will have the names.

    As for your assertions about college, it saddens me to think that students are not getting the kind of broad-based, quality education I did. You’re learning from me, Greg, and some of the older people on this site precisely because we DID get great educations that informed our choices as we moved into the world. College education may be overrated these days because the institutions themselves have turned into votech/business-degree machines. But I would be nowhere without my college education.

  • MovieMan0283 spoke:
    21st/10/2010 to 11:40 am

    Oh good, glad to hear it. At any rate I look forward to seeing the film after its online “premiere”, however flawed it sounds highly interesting.

    As for college, fair enough point. It’s different for everyone – upon reflection, most of what I’ve learned in my life – particularly in terms of film history and appreciation, but in other topics as well – came from books I picked up on my own (and far more enthusiastically than what was assigned I might add), and most of the skills (in terms of writing) came through public high school. In terms of general liberal arts knowledge, college provided a bit for me, but personally I prefer and have gleaned more from autodictatism.

    Now this is not to say I endorse the stripping of liberal-arts programs, I wholeheartedly agree that colleges should not turn into votech/business-degree machines, which is a depressing thought. That said, the whole crisis just makes me wish people invested in more in extracurricular opportunities for learning and life experience; college shouldn’t be dispensed with altogether it’s just (in my view) overstressed, and not just as an educational opportunity but as a grand life passage (which is, of course, another topic).

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/10/2010 to 11:56 am

    Life is a learning experience. Some reach out and grab as much as they can, and others prefer to remain safely ensconced in the familiar for reasons of their own or long-established habit. I was one of those omnivorous people, though it might surprise some who think I’m hot stuff on movies (I’m not, Rod is) to learn that I was a theatre person who couldn’t converse cogently about movies until I passed the age of 40 and started my film education as an autodidact.

  • MovieMan0283 spoke:
    21st/10/2010 to 1:06 pm

    Marilyn, that’s pretty impressive – vive les autodidacts! (which I misspelled in the previous post – apparently my autodidacticism did not go far enough… 😉 )

  • Greg F spoke:
    21st/10/2010 to 10:30 pm

    I don’t like to see colleges dropping their liberal-arts program but to me the whole situation points less to the necessity for undergraduate liberal-arts than to the exaggerated necessity for college in general.

    I agree the necessity is exaggerated but it’s exagerrated for all the wrong reasons. I majored in Theatre and my work life has had nothing to do with theatre. But my education, both at college and throughout my life, watching and reading and learning, has tipped the balance in my favor for getting gainful employment, though I readily admit, those days are ending. The reason I only had two interviews in a year (only TWO!) was because well over 90 percent of postings required a degree in the field!. So, while I had an extensive HR background (and as an Administrator to boot) all anyone wanted was some dullard who had a degree in HR, would work for cheap and had the imagination of a field mouse.

    It didn’t used to be that way. The woman who was the Director of HR where I worked (she was laid off too) had worked her way up from a secretarial position in the seventies, with only a high school diploma. Well, in her mid-fifties she took as long as I did to find another job and even though she had been an HR Director for a prestigious nationally known institution for over two decades, she finally had to settle for an executive assistant position because she has no college degree. It’s ridiculous! Let me tell you something, she’s better than any HR degreed nimrod out there but everyone is focused on college now as an elaborate trade school, not a place of liberal arts learning and it’s a real problem.

    I believe the business world would work so much better if no one ever asked for a related degree and simply interviewed people with the most impressive interviewee getting the job. But that doesn’t happen anymore, sadly.

  • MovieMan0283 spoke:
    21st/10/2010 to 10:53 pm

    Agreed completely with this too – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve clicked on a job position that says something like “entry level” and then proceeds with “3 years experience in the field, master’s degree” etc…

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