Bodies, skin, and interdisciplinary dialogue: An Interview with Vlad Dima

By Kathryn Mara

I first contact Dr. Vlad Dima in order to invite him to be part of a panel discussing The Image Book at the Wisconsin Film Festival. When he happily agrees, I build on this momentum by asking if he would be interested in being interviewed for the departmental website. He again obliges, inviting me to his office. After brief introductions, for we have not formally met until now, I begin the interview.

“So, first, how long have you been teaching in the department?” I ask.

“Well, in African Cultural Studies, I’ve only joined this year actually,” Dr. Dima explains. “And I was on sabbatical in the fall, so, technically, for a couple of months.”

“And how long have you been teaching in the Department of French and Italian?” I inquire, acknowledging his joint appointment.

“2012,” Dr. Dima says. “Got tenure in 2017.”

I ask him what kind of courses he is teaching in African Cultural Studies.

“Because I just started this semester, I’m still split,” Dr. Dima begins before elaborating further. “So, I’m doing a course in French for graduate students, and the one course I’m doing for ACS is sort of an introduction to Francophone cinema, mostly West and Central Africa.”

“And are there courses you’d be interested in teaching in the department in the future?” I inquire further. “Dream courses, I suppose.”

“Dream course,” Dr. Dima repeats after me, omitting a small chuckle. “Well, part of it is I think that everything I’m going to be doing in ACS is more or less at least dream adjacent.” He pauses as I laugh at his turn of phrase before continuing. “So, I’m slated to do a graduate course in the fall that deals more with questions of sound, which is basically one of my main interests. Sort of, how does sound work in cinema? What kind of narrative spaces [does] it create? How can we link that to questions of aurality? So, that course will be basically be a seminar aimed at dealing with some of these questions, and I’m going to try to connect it to some questions of literature and sound. Is there such a thing as sound in literature? It also deals with the body. The body is fairly central to postcolonial studies, so what I’m trying to see is if I can explore with my students visual bodies, aural bodies, and then haptic bodies as a way to show perhaps—which is what interests me currently—does cinema itself have a body? Or does the film itself have a body, something that we can actually touch? For the spring, I’m doing a course, a 300-level course, on Sembène, but not just cinema, so we’re going to be looking at all of his novels and a majority of his films. So, it’s meant to be this sort of interdisciplinary dialogue from the written words to the visual word.”

“Interesting,” I comment. “You mentioned that the graduate seminar was more closely related to your research. Can you describe what you’re currently working on or what you’re interested in working on?”

“Yeah. Well, I touched upon it just now. So, my current book project,” he begins before starting over again in his excitement. “It’s a very complicated project because it looks at the metaphor of skin basically, but in three different contexts, one psychoanalytical, one football, and one cinematic, and the connecting thread is representations of skin, right? So, this started with a simple observation that many, many secondary characters in African film wear soccer jerseys, and they happen to be fakes. They happen to be knock-offs. So, I started wondering about the current state of the European fantasy in Africa. What does this mean? Not necessarily for the kids who wear it, who might just wear it to wear something, but what does it mean to us? And what does it mean for Black identity? What does it mean for African subjectivity? Things that are more important on the larger scale, right? And connect it to what I was saying earlier about cinematic bodies, the book builds up to where it’s interrogating whether or not there is a skin for film, because if film has a skin, then it necessarily has a body, at least to me,” he explains, almost as an aside. “So, that’s basically what I’m doing right now, and it builds on my original research, which again deals with sound and the creation of aural spaces and aural narrative planes, which we can also take to mean an aural body.”

“And what kind of student work would you be interested in supervising?” I prod further.

“Well, as I am new, I will likely not say ‘no’ to anyone who wants to work with me, even if they’re only tangentially connected to my work,” Dr. Dima admits with a small laugh. “In an ideal world, I would like to work with somebody who wants to write a dissertation on cinema, whether it’s North African cinema, more Western, more Central. It wouldn’t have to be Francophone necessarily, but I guess I would also be curious what kind of work people do that’s maybe more interdisciplinary. Maybe a dissertation that deals with literature, prose theater, and cinema, something like that. I’ve always been interested in questions of race, sexuality, and gender. I mean, all of these are connected anyway. So, I don’t have an ideal student in mind. I just want to be helpful,” he concludes with a warm smile which I return.

“Would you have any advice for incoming or current graduate students in African Cultural Studies?”

“Advice on how to go about their studies, or…?” Dr. Dima clarifies.

“Or anything!” I insist, leaving my question open.

“I think the most important thing when you’re coming into a graduate student program is to make an effort, in the first couple of years, to get to know as many faculty as possible, take courses with a variety of my colleagues, get to know people, knock on doors, ask a lot of questions. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. That can happen sometimes, culturally or not, where people get shy to just approach somebody, but I find that my colleagues in ACS, myself included, are very open and willing to discuss things, meet with people, whatever the case. So, I think that’s important because generally, people don’t come into grad school, especially at the MA-level, with a clear idea of what they want to do. In my case, too, when I moved to the Ph.D., I changed actually the direction of my dissertation. So, that’s always in flux, so the burden shouldn’t just be on the student to figure everything out, right? There’s a lot of stuff that’s going on in grad school, so I think communication is key. So, reach out to people. Don’t be shy and try and figure out what it is that you like, what makes you passionate.”

Continuing to solicit advice for graduate students, I ask, “If you were going to recommend any book, any journal article, any song, any film, to all African Cultural Studies graduate students, which would it be?”

“That’s such a hard question,” Dr. Dima concedes. “I mean, just because this book is right in front of me, Homi Bhabha’s Location of Culture is one of the essential texts that I teach and deal with in postcolonial studies. I’ll give that. It’s just one of the many,” he clarifies. “But film-wise actually, I think that Sembène’s Xala, from 1975, is one of those films that should go on any sort of MA list, prelim lists, even if you’re not going to end up working in film. It’s just such a rich film that deals with everything we just mentioned, all of these types of bodies, all of the theoretical issues whether they come from Bhabha, from Fanon, from Said. They’re all in this film, so film-wise, that would be my recommendation. Yeah.”

“May I ask why are you reading The Location of Culture again now?”

Dr. Dima responds, “I’m doing an independent study with a graduate student, and we’re going over major texts in postcolonial literature and cinema. So, for this week, we’re doing Location of Culture, and even though I’ve read it many times, I still like to go over things before I meet with somebody,” he explains before a spark of inspiration comes to him. “So, that’s something else that can be useful to students in ACS. I don’t take on a lot of independent studies, but sometimes, even one credit [can be useful]. You meet with a faculty five, six times in a semester, you come up with a reading list or a viewing list for films, and you deal with specific issues that might be helpful going into an exam or going into the dissertation or just to cover up a lack that the student might have, say, with cinema. So, that’s something I’ve been doing ever since I came here. Obviously, I haven’t had a chance to do it with somebody in ACS, but I’ve done it quite frequently for students in French.”

“On a slightly different note, what are some of your favorite things to do in Madison?” I ask.

“Let’s see. Goodness,” Dr. Dima exclaims. “I guess I like the food scene in Madison. For what I consider a city still on the smaller side—not to call it a ‘town’ maybe—there is a lot of variety. One of my favorite places actually just closed. That BBQ Joint on Willy St. And it was one of my favorite places.”

“Really? It closed?” I ask, a little surprised, having walked by it on numerous occasions without ever having tried it.

“Yeah. It closed,” Dr. Dima answers. “But there’s a lot of very good Thai food, there’s a lot of good Japanese food, there’s a lot of good Mediterranean food. Just a lot of good options. So, I really enjoy going out to eat,” He concludes before adding, “I think Madison is very good for biking too, but obviously, you can’t bike for six months out of the year. I mean, people do it,” he admits. “I don’t know how, but for me, it’s more of a half-a-year venture. But I really like the trails here quite a bit. I think Badger Trail is my favorite.”

Turning my attention to his office, I comment, “I also observed this print,” though I’m not sure “print” is the right word for the collage in front of me. “Are those movie tickets?” I ask.

“They are movie tickets, yeah,” Dr. Dima confirms, looking back at the framed art behind him.

“And how did you collect these or compile them? What’s the logic system?” I inquire.

Dr. Dima explains, “I don’t know if you can tell, but it’s supposed to look like a film reel. And I’ve always kept my movie stubs, so these go back to when I was in college in the early 2000s, and I didn’t know what to do with them, so I came up with this idea to sort of display them, and then it just kind of traveled with me from college to grad school to the different jobs to here. There used to be two of them. Only one survived. And I have, somewhere in my home, a whole box of tickets stubs that are unused. And I buy my tickets on the phone now, so I don’t get the ticket stubs anymore, so it’s a bit of a nostalgic almost heirloom, if you will. There’s some terrible stuff here. It just caught my eye that I went to see Shrek 2 and Blade 2,” he observes before I cut him off.

“Lots of sequels,” I comment jokingly.

Dr. Dima continues his list. “Passion of the Christ. So, yeah. I guess early to mid-2000s. That’s Harry Potter. I mean, I go to the movies quite a bit. I see everything. Even though I work in African film and people always ask me, ‘What is the best movie out there?’ I don’t know. I just see them. I just see them. I like Hollywood. I like French cinema. I love African cinema obviously.”

“What’s the most recent film you’ve seen in theaters?” I ask inquisitively.

Us,” he responds. “So, that’s a must. I mean, Jordan Peele, for somebody like me especially. I don’t do as much work in the African Diaspora, but Jordan Peele is somebody that intrigues me, because he is wildly original, and both Get Out, a couple of years ago, and Us, I think, are doing wonders in terms of what representation is, what kind of bodies we see on screen, i.e. black bodies. So, he’s a fascinating filmmaker. And it’s scary. I don’t like the horror genre that much. I mean, it was tolerable, but it was still very intense.”

“I’ve hesitated to go see it,” I confess. “I want to, but the commercials scare me. Lupita’s performance just scares me.”

“She’s extraordinary,” Dr. Dima gushes.

“She’s amazing, yes,” I agree.

Dr. Dima continues his praise of the film. “There’s some stuff about sound and voice that interest me, so I watched the film both with a critical eye and as a fan of Jordan Peele’s, and it’s fascinating. I guess this one is less about race than Get Out, though you can’t really take race out of it, it’s more about freedom. Who or what are we tied up to? All of us, right? And I won’t say anything more, but I think you should watch it. This is the one directorial voice that people need to pay attention to right now, I think. Jordan Peele, yeah.”

I thank Dr. Dima for his time, and I ask him for a picture next to his ticket reel collage. As of this writing, I still haven’t found the courage to go see Us, but Dr. Dima’s comments about it have stayed with me.