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Mieke Bal discusses film on cultural identity

Published: March 14, 2014
Section: Arts, Etc.

This Thursday, Mieke Bal came to Brandeis as part of the Art and Gender: Global Perspectives Lecture Series. A Dutch cultural theorist, video artist and founding director of the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis, Bal came to speak and screen her film “Becoming Vera.”

Before Bal began her lecture, titled “Resisting Resistance: Identity Politics Revisited,” she had a very short question and answer panel. When an audience member asked her when she became interested in feminist identity, she answered, “It started when I realized that I was born a feminist. When I was born, my father was glad that he had so many daughters because he thought they would become good homemakers.”

A woman in the crowd then raised her hand and asked about Bal’s opinion on female artists. With a disapproving expression she retorted, “I have never used the term ‘female artist.’ No one says ‘male artist.’ I guess I’m an equalist that way.”

At this point, I became very excited to hear the remainder of her lecture; she was extremely dynamic when answering questions and interacting with her audience, which consisted of art history students, professors and some old friends. However, I was a tad disappointed when she began her lecture.

For the entirety of the lecture, Bal read off of a printed script and only looked up a few times to briefly make eye contact with those who attended the lecture. I would have preferred that Bal showed her film before lecturing because I felt that her lecture was mainly an analysis of her film.

Her film, “Becoming Vera,” follows subject Vera Loumpet-Galitzine, a three-year-old girl who has a Russian mother and Cameroonian father. One of the most noticeable factors that unify this ethnically-diverse family is that they all speak French: Vera’s mother and father were university students in Paris, where they met and eventually got married. The film shows “where [Vera] comes from [and] comes into her own” as she travels to France (her home country), Cameroon and Russia. In Cameroon, she visits Fumban, where she is initiated as nji mongu, the oldest daughter of her father, who is the nji (prince) of the Bamun kingdom.

I thought it was a particularly interesting and visually dynamic film, but I was disappointed that, due to the lecture that preceded the showing of the film, I was unable to fully formulate my own ideas and understanding of the film. I was intrigued by Vera’s story because of her status as a “third culture kid.” Growing up with multiple backgrounds creates the need to impress all of them. Vera happily dances and plays during her travels but I thought that she was much more comfortable with her Western (Russian and French) background than she was with her life in Fumban.

I appreciated that the directors of the film opted to not use an authoritative narrative to state everything that was going on.

Although this installation of the Global Perspectives Lecture Series was interesting, it could have been even better if Bal had chosen to show “Becoming Vera” before talking about it. I also would have liked to have heard more about feminist input on Vera’s initiation as nji mongu. All in all, “Becoming Vera” is a low-production film, but Vera herself is a high-quality subject.