With the theatres closed and festivals cancelled, film critics have been forced to work from home like many others. At Berlinale 2020 they could still join the excited crowds buzzing around Potsdamer Platz. One of those happy theatregoers was Maja Korbecka, as part of the Talent Press initiative. Nowadays she is researching for her PhD on China's art cinema and film festivals and working as a Chinese-English-Polish translator. While she is constantly writing about film, she also explores new formats of engaging with cinema. Henry Salfner caught up with her to talk non-traditional film criticism, from video essays to GIFs.
Where do you publish your criticism? What is your favourite medium to work in and why?
So far I publish my work in easternKicks, EKRANy, frameland among others, but I’d love to publish film criticism in a bilingual or trilingual magazine (for example, in my case it would be English/Chinese/Polish in any combination) but such a film magazine does not exist yet, or not that I know of. I think my current favourite medium of work is video essay, for many reasons, one of which is the option of adding subtitles.
What advantages do you see in "non-traditional" formats such as video essays or podcasts?
It is an entirely different language of communication. As audiovisual culture has such a strong presence in our everyday lives, some of the skills come intuitively of course, but it also requires you to learn certain aspects of this new language. In audiovisual criticism images and sounds join words in the toolbox a critic can use. It’s so much fun to engage with the object of your fascination directly, to re-edit and look at it from another perspective. Though you are using another person’s work in ways, you are still the one shaping the argument, just like in writing. Audiovisual works offer the opportunity to reach more people, different audiences. Podcasts are even more direct and personal; you are listening to people discussing films in a conversation, just like you would overhear in a cafe. However, the problem is that, just as in written form, there is a lot of burden in the description of the visuals, which video essays can just directly show on screen. Bilinguality is also difficult to achieve via the purely written or spoken medium. Both forms have different advantages; podcasts invite more discussion, there is actually a smaller barrier between a listener and a film critic.
What are the most interesting developments in film criticism in recent years for you medium and content wise?
Medium wise, for me it would be film criticism on Instagram and Twitter. One film still with or without subtitles makes a strong statement and can reveal certain mechanisms, narrative clichés, recurring motifs, solidified modes of representation. However, this collection of film stills must be curated and present a clear argument supported by a short introduction or few impressions. I feel on Instagram or Twitter there is no need to label films with value-adding categories (that create a notion of rarity and discovery e.g. “underappreciated classic”, “fresh debut”, “new vision”), because on these platforms images can speak for themselves.
A while ago I saw a video essay in which Leigh Singer mentioned one channel on Twitter called Silent Movie GIFs. I got really fascinated with the idea behind this collection of small excerpts from silent films in the form of .gifs, the strength with which it can popularise silent cinema and raise people’s interest in it! I have been in love with pre-1949 Chinese cinema for a long time now. I feel some films from this period encapsulate life and reality in such a mesmerizing way, so I decided to start my own Silent Movie GIFs-inspired Instagram channel - muwei.gif - which can be translated to “flavour of the screen” in Chinese 幕味 (one of the words for “movies” popular in pre-1949 China). On muwei.gif I gather 5-7 second film fragments in .gif format, focusing especially on acting performances and gestures.
I think content wise, many current debates in fact emerged a long time ago but we are not aware of this history of film criticism. Such is the case of racial representation in cinema; the debate was very much alive for example in 1930s Chinese film theory and film criticism. I think the most interesting essays are the ones focused on the institutional realm of cinema, on the film environment and the profession of a film critic. One example might be Tara Judah’s series Reflections.
Where do you position the critic in relation to the film, the filmmaker(s) and the audience?
I think the job of a film critic is to serve others as much as to serve yourself. Getting people interested in films that might show them another point of view on the world, making them feel for characters similar or entirely different from them, is so gratifying.
Film criticism has always been a way for me to feel less lonely. It comes from the desire to communicate, exchange, feel as if I am a part of a community that shares the same language. Of course it’s not a perfect match, because all groups have their power structures and favoured topics, but cinema provides a common ground to reflect and talk about life, ourselves, others, society or anything that exists and does not exist in this world. I believe one of my tasks as a film critic is to make the dialogue informed through presenting research on the local context, whether we write about national or global cinema.
What are your hopes and expectations for the future of criticism?
I hope for more diversification and inclusivity. Rewriting the film history and questioning the canon. The cult status of some filmmakers, regardless of how much their works are or were amazing, can often overwhelm and overshadow a lot of other brilliant films that are out there. I would love to see more writing about cinema without interpreting non-Western films with excessive pessimism, and critique of the state of society presented on screen. Ideologies are omnipresent, censorship and self-censorship is ubiquitous, it’s just more or less visible depending on a person’s point of view. These processes are not necessarily sanctioned but customary, deriving from the process of socialisation and attached to each person’s habitus. My hope for the future of film criticism is not to deny one’s limitations but to acknowledge them and try to engage in attentive, respectful and open dialogue.