- Latin America on Screen:Film as a Complement to Teaching Regional Geography
In an honorary presidential address he called "The Education of a Geographer," Carl Sauer (1956, p. 294) summed up the challenges of teaching a course in regional geography by asserting: "A good regional course is largely an individual creation out of long application, nursed on much meditation. To me it is a study in historical geography." Since I began teaching at Queen's University in Canada, regional courses on Latin America have figured in the curriculum. Despite the disappearance of such offerings from geography programs elsewhere, two courses in particular, one on Middle America and another on South America, have proven perennially popular. A Sauerian penchant for historical geography forms the foundation of what I teach, and deploying film as means of instruction is a key complement to how I teach.
Short of students being in the field alongside you, film is arguably the best surrogate for relaying to them, within the confines of a university classroom, the texture of reality. What we teach, and how we teach, have changed dramatically since I started out forty years ago, but still nothing compares with the stunned silence of a full house, many students with tears in their eyes, when the lights of the lecture theater come on after screening a powerful film. Refreshment and follow-up discussion in a campus pub make for a long but rewarding night of teaching.
Having amassed a viable collection, each year I vary the films screened in class to convey the vagaries and vicissitudes of Latin American land and life. The films I allude to here, and offer synopses of on the CLAG website,1 are those I draw on most, nursed into service (a Sauerian penchant once again) after much meditation regarding their focus, substance, pedagogic worth, and geographical fit with what students hear in lectures and read about in course texts. While they consult classic works on the regional geography of Latin America, such as James (first edition, 1942) and West and Augelli (first edition, 1969), the text I assign as required reading is Eduardo Galeano's Memory of Fire (1985, 1987, 1988), a remarkable work of creative nonfiction that is historical geography by any other name (Lovell, 1993, 2017). Film, however, does something that no text can: It situates students in time and place, envelopes them with the sights, sites, and sounds of geographies that hitherto they've only read about or discussed in the classroom.
In this exploratory foray, I comment 1) on an evolving body of literature at the nexus of geography, film, and pedagogy before 2) evaluating and contextualizing twenty-two feature films by twenty-one different directors [End Page 171] that conjure up perspectives on Latin America in all its tangled complexity.
geography, film, and pedagogy
Hailing rightly "that the geographic study of film has come of age," Aitken and Dixon (2006, p. 326) note nonetheless that the field "is often lacking a critical perspective, focusing primarily on the geographic realism of films rather than how they produce meaning." We need to ensure, they stress, that "our studies are not only about filmic representations of space but are also about the material conditions of lived experience and everyday social practice" (Aitken & Dixon, 2006, p. 326). As a domain of inquiry, the geographical study of film dates back to Burgess and Gold's Geography, the Media, and Popular Culture (1985). Not until the publication, however, almost a decade later, of Aitken and Zonn's Place, Power, Situation, and Spectacle (1994) might film geography be said to have emerged as a discrete sub-discipline. Today, film's relevance to better understanding how we see, represent, interpret, and frame the world is indisputable, as Cresswell and Dixon (2002), Lukinbeal and Zimmerman (2008), and Aitken (2009) animatedly contend.
To Lukinbeal and Sharp (2014, para. 1), film geography is "the study of films as cultural texts on the one hand, and as cultural commodities on the other." Importantly, "the distinction continues to be applied for pedagogical purposes." They credit Aitken and Zonn (1994) for being "the first to question the relationship between the 'real,' off-screen world...