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Film Professor from Columbia University holds courses in Amman

By Suzanna Goussous - Jul 21,2017 - Last updated at Jul 21,2017

AMMAN — Believing in the power of cinema and the role it plays in people’s everyday lives, Richard Peña has been tracing film history all over the world and has been spreading knowledge about the industry.

Peña, professor of Professional Practice at the School of The Arts at Columbia University in New York City, held courses over the week at the Columbia Global Centres in Amman named “On the Margins of American Cinemas”.

The professor was born in 1953 to Spanish and Puerto Rican parents and grew up in New York City, where he developed an interest in cinema and film industry. After taking several courses in film, he started his career as a film historian and a professor in 1976.

“I always felt my background helped, as I was seen as someone outside the mainstream. I always thought that there is more than what film offers us… I was interested in seeing what is beyond the film production,” he said.

There were many movements in cinema production that contributed to the scene nowadays, including the independent African American cinema, neo-realism, avant-garde and the evolution of documentaries, Peña said.

As for the independent African-American cinema, he said, it was mostly developed between 1915 and 1952, when the cinema was “independent because it was made by and for African Americans”.

Beginning in the 1940s and growing into a considerable movement by the 1960s, the avant-garde movement had a strong presence in terms of production and cinema audiences . The movement was especially popular in cities like New York, San Francisco and Boston, the professor noted.

He said the movement is “not as rich” nowadays, after “losing its connection” to a larger audience. 

The neo-realist movement started back in the mid 1940s, after a number of Italian films began to be released, which used real locations and a cast of non-actors rather than fixed sets, as well as natural light instead of artificial lights.

The movement meant that film stories became more ambiguous and open, and it was seen as very different from Hollywood films,  which presented an alternate model of filmmaking, according to Peña. 

With time, documentaries also started witnessing an evolution, starring the presence of a director and the voice intended for the documentary, Peña added.

Human-made disasters and wars have also had some effects on films internationally, he said. The World War II, for instance, changed the technologies used for cinema productions, with cameras becoming much lighter, films more sensitive, magnetic recording available and people becoming more aware.

In terms of subject matter, the older generation and the new generation differ in the themes they target in their film productions, he said, including the commercial-based Hollywood films.

“Sometimes, cinema is a great place to air your feelings about ‘the war’. For instance, take the case of Lebanon: for years, you could only see Lebanese films about the war… Now, a new generation wants to make films about their lives,” the professor told The Jordan Times.

 “The war sometimes becomes a subject to escape from,” he added.

As for the Middle Eastern film industry, he said the new generation has been making films about their lives and how they view conflicts and global and regional issues.

“I think lately, there have been some good films for the last 10 to 15 years; young Palestinian and Lebanese directors have been producing some really good films,” Peña said.  

Many years ago, Middle Eastern films were limited to Egypt, and then they spread to a few other Arab countries. Today, filmmakers have been trying to produce films everywhere; Arab cinema is now global, the professor said.

“Jordan is making films now, after casting itself as a service centre; as a location for big productions,” he added.


 “Two things are important for diversity initiatives: first, it’s really up to us to work as hard as we can to see as much as we can, to really beat the bushes, see everything we can. Second, we should always maintain the standards we believe in,” Peña said.  “Make a film that’s perfect for you; let it be your film… Don’t make films for festivals, make them for yourself. Make sure you’re expressing what you want to say in the way you want to say it… Go beyond,” he concluded.

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