Srijita Banerjee (MAPH 2018) on French Ethnographic Film, Experimental Animation, and the Connections She Made During the UChicago MAPH Program

A UChicago MAPH student in the 2017-2018 academic year, Srijita Banerjee is now a second year PhD student in Cinema Studies at the University of Toronto. The MAPH program was what led her to cinema studies: “I came into the program super interested in art history, but I took a bunch of film courses because they also seemed interesting,” Banerjee says. “Taking those convinced me that I wanted to pivot to cinema studies, though still with some art history. My MAPH year also convinced me that research was going to be my primary focus, and to apply for a PhD.” The year after MAPH, Banerjee wrote her PhD applications and taught as a Writing Intern for the UChicago Writing Program—her first experience teaching at a North American university. “It taught me a lot about teaching, not just the content but about pedagogy and inclusivity that are still very important in my teaching today.” 

Banerjee also enthusiastically recalls the courses she took in CMS during MAPH. 

Daniel Morgan’s “Methods and Issues in Cinema Studies” course was pivotal to her decision to pursue cinema studies instead of art history. “Methods was a career-determining course for me, because it introduced me to several experimental and animated films—including those by Jodie Mack, the focus of my master’s thesis.” Part of her thesis was also influenced by Jim Lastra’s “Senses and Technology” course, where writings by Gilbert Simondon shaped her work on technology and human perception. She also took Tom Gunning’s Alfred Hitchcock course. “Tom is one of my favorite historians,” she says. “I identify now as a film historian and go back to his writings and notes from his class to try to understand film history from that perspective.” She had hoped to take a course with Salomé Skvirsky, who was on leave that year, but they met when Skvirsky delivered a keynote on the process genre for the UToronto Cinema Studies graduate conference—which Banerjee co-organized on the theme of friendship. 

A conversation with Skvirsky during the conference gave Banerjee several avenues to think about her research on collection. Banerjee’s doctoral research focuses on the ways in which the French conquest of Algeria led to the profession of collection. “Around the beginning of the earlier part of the twentieth century, many ethnographic filmmakers began to go to Algeria to make films about natives and their lives,” she explains. As colonizers plundered artifacts from Algeria and Sub-Saharan Africa, museums began to crop up in France. Banerjee’s dissertation will examine the development of these French museums and the practice of collection that accompanied colonization, and how these had a major influence on the Surrealists and the historical avant-garde cinema in France. “Salomé told me to go to root of what the word ‘collection’ means, and to think about what it means to collect things in general—and in French culture and cinema—before I started reading.”  

UChicago also played a role in introducing Banerjee to French cinema and realism in a course taught by James Cahill, a visiting professor during her MAPH year. As an Associate Professor in Cinema Studies at UToronto, Cahill is now Banerjee’s supervisor. Her UToronto courses have complemented and extended her research interests. “Last year, James taught a course called ‘Exploration of the World’ about French ethnographic filmmakers who colonized Algeria and their influence on other kinds of cinema, including the French avant-garde.” She also enjoyed a class taught by Scott Richmond (Ph.D. 2011) on the cybernetic avant-garde—which was similar to an Experimental Animation class she took with Marc Downie at UChicago, where she learned how to use the Field software that he and the OpenEndedGroup developed for filmmaking. At UToronto, she’s also taken courses on avant-gardes, film history, and film and migration. She hopes to finish her coursework by the end of the fall semester and to finalize her committee, which already includes Cahill and Richmond.  

Banerjee’s broader interests lie in experimental animation, which she discovered in Morgan’s Methods and Issues course. “I saw how much animation paralleled my previous training in art history, and I thought I could make an intervention in this field.” As she was inspired by Jodie Mack’s films, she was delighted to be introduced to her later by Tom Gunning. Banerjee wrote her master’s thesis on Mack’s films Curses and Dusty Stacks of Mom. “I wrote about how her films’ DIY aesthetics cover human perception in films. I’m interested in how she uses discarded debris and things considered trash, and I connected her films to the ways that Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer discuss the discarded in history.” Banerjee’s interest in experimental animation also was sparked by her Methods course TA Dave Burnham, a current PhD candidate who introduced her to many films and spoke with her at length about animation. These interests have led her to propose a course on experimental animation at UToronto next year. She plans to include neo-avant-garde and New York artists such as Harry Smith, Jodie Mack, Jordan Belson, and the Whitney brothers.  

Coursework and TAing for Film Cultures I and Introduction to Film have filled her schedule this fall. “When the pandemic began, I made a resolution to read one article every day, but that went out the window once classes started,” Banerjee laughs. But in the first few months of quarantine, she watched several French films on the Criterion Channel, including Jean Vigo’s L’atalante, which she hopes will be part of her dissertation. She also co-leads a Historical Materialism Reading Group, which has continued to run during the pandemic. “We read Benjamin’s Arcades Project, and now we’re reading Miriam Hansen’s Cinema and Experience to get a better sense of what Benjamin meant. Those readings have been keeping me company.” To unwind, she has been playing Nintendo games, which inspired a piece she wrote on Animal Crossing and boredom during the pandemic. While at UChicago she took a class with Chris Carloy (Ph.D. 2018), her MAPH preceptor; “Chris got me super into writing about video games, and I’ve done that as a side project,” she says. 

Banerjee recalls how UChicago and the city itself shaped her work in several different ways. “MAPH is such a nice community, and I’m still in touch with many people I met there. As a student, it was so helpful to talk to MAPH alumni who went into PhD programs. That really shaped how I thought about what I’d want to do as a future PhD student.” The MAPH alumni lists helped her to contact graduate students at different departments as she decided where to apply. Banerjee also is grateful to MAPH for connecting her to an internship at the Field Museum, where she worked for a year as a Collections Assistant in the photo archives. “That shaped my interest in collecting for my dissertation. And with my work on avant-gardes and art history, being so close to the Art Institute was very useful. Both Dan and Tom introduced me to so many people there.” Banerjee also worked as a publicity assistant for UChicago Press as a MAPH student. She has been involved in publishing since she was invited to be a peer reviewer for the Journal of Arts Writing by Students (Intellect Journals, London) after she published an article on the Anthropocene during her last year of undergrad. She now serves as their Associate Editor. She also currently does publicity for The Neutral, the UToronto Cinema Studies Journal.  

In the ideal post-pandemic ideal world, Banerjee hopes to travel to archives, and to enroll in a Canadian program where students stay with a family in Quebec to learn French. “I’m trying to improve my French so that I can do French film research, and this was suggested by my advisor, James.” But in the meantime, as she prepares for her field exams this summer, she says she has “lots of reading to do!” 



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