“Mandarine”, the realism and the double logic of digital cinema

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Does digital cinema mean green screens and full CGI characters? Or a realistic shaking camera and more accessible cinema? (The answer is yes, and yes).

Magnolia Pictures

By Meg ShieldsPublished November 10, 2021

Welcome to The Queue – your daily distraction of curated video content from across the web. Today we are watching a video essay on “Tangerine” by Sean Baker and the contradictory presence of digital cinema, both as an avenue of the fantastic and the realistic.


The relationship between cinema and digital technology is… complicated. And for those of us whose hearts are beating at the thought of the change signals and the grain of the film, the gut reaction is usually negative. Digital technology overwhelmingly dominates the way modern films are made and consumed. And there is an instinctive fear that digital technology may not necessarily change the medium for the better.

The proliferation of discrete digital adjustments calls into question the film’s relationship to material reality. Until digital technologies became ubiquitous, you could generally believe that what you saw on the screen pass in one form or another. There’s an argument to be made that some modern live-action movies have more in common with animation than photography.

But that’s not the whole story. Indeed, as the video essay below vividly points out, the relationship of digital cinema to “reality” goes both ways. If you look at the relationship of digital to cinema from a different perspective, you can appreciate the ways in which digital technologies have been able to capture a new, hitherto unexplored iteration of cinematic realism.

Digital cameras were able to capture longer takes, allowing scenes to unfold in real time without the inevitable imposition of editing. Smaller, cheaper cameras have also enabled a new generation of filmmakers to tell previously underrepresented stories, capturing on-site sets that have since been swallowed up by gentrification.

Shot on an iPhone, Sean Baker’s Mandarin proves that digital cinema is not always synonymous with anti-realism. The film tells the story of Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), a trans sex worker who tries to find out whether or not her boyfriend cheated on her while she was in jail. And it’s an invaluable example in a larger, more diplomatic conversation about what digital technology brings to cinema.

Watch “The Other Side of Digital Cinema: Mandarin and Digital Realism”:


Who made this?

This video essay on digital cinema and Mandarin is by Jordan schönig, holder of a doctorate. in Film and Media Studies from the University of Chicago. They are film studies teachers and do video essays on what else, cinema. You can subscribe to Schonig on YouTube here. And you can follow them on Twitter here.

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Related subjects: Sean Baker, The Queue

Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a main contributor to Film School Rejects. She currently directs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How’d They Do That? and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found shouting about John Boorman’s “Excalibur” on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She she).



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