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technology and participatory media production: the 1981 Sandinista Workers Central super 8 workshop

October 29, 2010

For all I said in my earlier post about the subfield of development communications being stuck in a 25 year rut, there are, of course, some significant differences between then and now. Today’s scholars, even those further toward the left, are much less likely to point to Third Cinema as an ideal, as Alfonso Gumucio Dagron did in the third section of “Bolivia: radios mineras; Nicaragua: cine obrero sandinista; Aporte de la experiencia a la teoría de la comunicación alternativa” (Bolivia: miner radio stations; Nicaragua: sandinistan worker cinema; Contribution from the experience to the theory of alternative communication) (1983), which describes the first super 8 workshop of the Sandinista Workers Central (Central Sandinista de Trabajadores), carried out from February to August of 1981 under the Ministry of Planning via a grant from the United Nations Development Program (UNPD).

Third Cinema (Cine Tercero), Latin America’s most revolutionary film movement, was typified by Fernando Solanas’ 1968 classic, Hour of the Furnaces (La Hora de los Hornos) [see above]. Third Cinema flourished in the late 60s and early 70s, but by the early 80s, when Gumucio Dagron was writing, it had lost much of its revolutionary luster. Gumucio Dagron knew that critics of Third Cinema had a point: Despite its best intentions, Third Cinema remained too entrenched in bourgeois, intellectual, and confrontational habits. This would all change, according to Gumucio Dagron, with “a technological transfer to the hands of the workers organized on a class platform” (“una transferencia tecnológica a manos de los trabajadores organizados sobre una plataforma clasista“) (28). In other words, a technological leapfrog over the supposed vanguard. Which technology was to finally free the workers from their fetters?

Somehow, the technological advances achieved in super 8 film allow for the rescue of the fundamental element of the most important conceptual reflection generated within Latin American cinema, in other words, the theory of the “third cinema” elaborated in Argentina toward the end of the sixties.

De alguna manera, los avances tecnológicos logrados en el cine super 8 permiten rescatar lo fundamental de la más importante reflexión conceptual generada en torno al cine latinoamericano, es decir, la teoria del “tercer cine” elaborada a fines de los años sesenta en Argentina.

That’s right, super 8mm film. Most scholars were talking about video by 1983, but here’s Gumucio Dagron putting his weight behind old-school analog.

From our current vantage point, it’s laughable to think of someone lauding super 8 for being simple to use and distribute. Focus and exposure may have been relatively automated by 1981, but I’m pretty sure syncing decent quality sound still produced it’s share of frustration. Not to mention the laborious processes of developing, cutting and splicing, and reprinting, all of which were required to get a film into distribution. Any sustained production would require continued importation of specialized materials like film stock and development chemicals – not necessarily easy for a poor country in a proxy war with the US. And the end product would be shown on projectors of minimal quality in presumably less-than-ideal conditions. I’m not saying that Gumucio Dagron was wrong to praise or the Sandinistas were wrong to use super 8. Relative to other available technologies in their situation, super 8 probably did have considerable advantages in relation to the project’s goals. I don’t object to recognizing and employing those advantages, but we can’t assume that they are the final, necessary steps needed in order to achieve revolutionary ends:

The degree of sophistication of the automated technology of super 8 cinema, facilitated the task enormously. Without entering into too many technical questions, the students in the workshop could dedicate themselves completely to deepening theoretical instruments and conceiving each job putting emphasis on problems of ideology and expression.

El grado de sofisticación de la tecnología automatizada del cine super 8, facilitó enormemente la tarea. Sin entrar en demasiadas cuestiones técnicas, los alumnos del taller podían dedicarse por completo a profundizar instrumentos teóricos y a concebir cada trabajo haciendo énfasis en los problemas ideológicos y de expressión.

Time and time again, from the printing press to the telegraph, through the telephone, television, and radio, and right on up to satellites, the internet and mobile devices, impassioned observers have heralded each new wave of technological innovation as the harbinger of true democracy. Then, time and time again, the democratic potential is only partially realized. I am not saying that technology never makes some aspects of democratic human communication easier. It does. I like technology and I think we should seek to maximize its social potential. But I also try to keep in mind that the potential for radical democratic practice is ever present and never entirely dependent on technology. Given sufficient will, planning, and patience, deliberative democratic decision-making can happen with minimal technological capabilities. It could have happened 250 years ago and it could have happened 25 years ago. No matter when or where democratic deliberation occurs, however, human organization is much more important than access to state-of-the-art technology.

Today we might be tempted to say that digital video should facilitate the task of liberating workers from technical questions so that they can “dedicate themselves completely” to theoretical, ideological, and expressive concerns. A quick browse of the user-generated content on YouTube shows that’s not been the case. Technology alone cannot produce a revolutionary media practice. (As  Sasha Costanza-Chock says, “The revolution will be tweeted – but tweets do not the revolution make.”) What technology can do is enable new and different forms of organization for media production enterprises, but we must still find ways to sustainably integrate those enterprises into the larger and more complex political-economies of human communities.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Alfonso permalink
    October 29, 2010 2:53 pm

    Well, the fact is that video was not yet used in Nicaragua in 1981 when we had the workshop at the Central Sandinista de Trabajadores, and was still much more expensive than Super 8. On the other hand, ours was a training project, not a production or distribution project, and Super 8 was perfect to fit the purpose. The limitations of Super 8 (duration of film reels, manual editing, etc) forced each trainee to make a better creative effort, better prepare the scripts and plan the shooting and editing in advance. After the training they did easily migrate to video, with a better sense of filmmaking than if they had started with video. It is too easy to write about it 30 years after, with 2010 eyes, but at that time people were still betting if video or film would survive.

    • October 29, 2010 4:52 pm

      It’s an honor to have your reply, Alfonso. Thanks for all the work you’ve done throughout your career.

      I didn’t mean to imply that super 8 didn’t serve it’s purpose in the CST workshop. As I wrote:

      “I’m not saying that Gumucio Dagron was wrong to praise or the Sandinistas were wrong to use super 8. Relative to other available technologies in their situation, super 8 probably did have considerable advantages in relation to the project’s goals.”

      My emphasis on super 8’s technical challenges was only meant to support the argument that organizational structure is a more important concern for participatory communication scholarship than technology. I wonder if you agree with that?

      I would also love to hear more about the outcome of the CST workshop. When and how did it develop into a video enterprise? Did it ever become a production or distribution project? If you’ve already addressed that in print, please let me know where.

      I am working on a dissertation that discusses socialist communications policies in Latin America, especially as they relate to development communications theory and participatory organizational models. This blog is a place for me to work out my ideas and you’re more than welcome to check in and provide feedback – especially if I’m misinterpreting your own work!


      • Alfonso permalink
        December 2, 2010 5:41 pm

        send me your email Rich


  1. Community Cinema in Latin America and the Caribbean: Book Available Online | transd[e]uce

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