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Conflict cinema

December 13, 2010

Ilha das Flores, Jorge Furtado.

Foreign influence is largely French and in large measure to be condemned.
—Isaac Goldberg, Brazilian Tales (1922)

We are not in favor of firing merely for the pleasure of hearing the shot.
We shoot in order to hit the target.
—Jorge Fraga, Cuban filmmaker

A few months ago I went to a round-table dinner with seasoned scholars of Korean cinema (a field that really excites me, and in which I’m still green). One of the most interesting things to come out of the discussion was revisiting the idea of national cinema, and how much obfuscation this concept has caused within film history and visual studies. Transnational cinema has always existed even if scholars and critics have deleted it from memory or written over it with the heavy ink of national cinema. Two examples: Lev Kuleshov‘s revealing experiment in film editing and ideology was tried out by Alfred Hitchcock. Korea’s first ‘classical’ crane shot was filmed using a military rig provided by the U.S. army:

Madame Freedom was the first Korean movie to be shot using proper cranes and dollys. What made this possible was the fact that one of the partners at Samseong Film was a man who made machinery in Cheonggyecheon. Director Han Hyung-mo, who frequently went to Cheonggyecheon get his cameras repaired, persuaded a machine builder with an interest in producing movies to participate in the project. According to accounts, the new partner built the dolly and the crane himself in just one week, based on the sketches made by Han Hyung-mo. The dolly’s wheels were reportedly converted from four helicopter wheels obtained through a U.S. military unit in Korea.

Madame Freedom, Han Hyung-mo

(Tangential pause to indulge in the splendor of Korean melodramatic film posters.)

Teshome Gabriel, author of Third Cinema in the Third World (who sadly died in June this year) demanded attention for the cinema of non-aligned states in Latin America and Africa, and the anti-imperial experience that informed those works. His 1986 essay ‘Colonialism and “Law and Order” Criticism’ (.pdf here) is a polemical reflection on Third Cinema in a very readable and highly critical style. Gabriel did more than anyone else in downgrading Immanuel Wallerstein’s World System’s Theory, a concept that depended on theorizing space as either core or periphery, and to the exclusion of the possibility of post-capitalism. Gabriel found much fault with this idea and predicated Third Cinema as ‘anti-imperialist, militant and confrontational cinema [and] neither pre- nor non-Cinema as Spectacle.’ He returned to this idea at least two more times:

The position of the spectator in the Western cinema is different from the position of the spectator in Third Cinema. The theorisation of the Western spectator within the Althusserian framework views the subject as passive and mystified. This has been the cornerstone of the ideological critique of Western cinema. Western cinema represents and replays these mystified social relations. Third Cinema by contrast maintains that the relation between the Third World audience in Third Cinema is one of immediate ideological lucidity.


Third Cinema’ challenges the hegemonic hold of Cinema-as-Spectacle. Indeed, the concept of Third Cinema is unified in its difference from Hollywood or mainstream cinema.

Citing the Argentinian director and theorist Fernando Birri, he defines the condition of possibility for Third Cinema as an ‘active cinema for an active spectator.’ It is, Gabrial italicizes, ‘a cinema of and for liberation.’ The Third World continues to be seen as ‘dependent,’ ‘peripheral’ and ‘marginal’ not because it actually is, but because colonial discourse, in a which-comes-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg function, marginalizes it.

What I find most useful about Gabriel’s formulation, especially in light of a current text I’m writing on cinema in and between Brazil and France, is the way he frames speaking position, cultural translation and transparency. On the issue of whether or not a text is ‘transparent,’ Gabriel argues that it is ‘transparent enough in its own context. Consider this description of the work of Lucrecia Martel (who emerged with fellow filmmakers of her generation from the self-described ruins of the Argentinian military dictatorships of the 70s and 80s), ‘her movies are at once confounding and, in their way, perfectly intelligible.’ In other words, context goes a long way to making difficult cinematic treatments exoteric.

La Ciénaga, Lucrecia Martel

Gabriel rejects the relinquishing of Third World concerns and responsibilities to the West, or allowing industrialized (or aligned) countries to define the speaking position of the so-called Third World, for whom ‘film-making has always been a political act. They have been incarcerated, exiled and killed not because of the lack of their own critical theory but, in fact, precisely because of it.’ While dialogues (empathic, oppositional, combative, or others) between the West and the Third World are welcome, Gabriel surmises that these efforts are blocked by historical injuries, and doesn’t shy away from using exact words (‘colonialism and imperialism’) in naming them.

Gabriel’s explanation of south-north cinematic spectatorship is useful because so few writers of film take the time to excavate how people actually watch them. For example, how do people view Buñuel’s Land Without Bread? This film, shot in a remote Mexican village by a renowned Spanish director, deals with unthinkable, soul-crushing poverty, and is almost universally called a ‘satirical ethnography.’ Gabriel argues that ethnographic films of its kind ‘tend to be viewed as political in the country of their origin, while they are viewed as exotica outside it.’ Regardless of how explosively or politically Buñuel employs satire (and to scintillating effect, I think), the question of who watches and how they watch is still valid. Gabriel claims the opposite viewing position is also true:

An American fiction film seen overseas may be regarded as a documentary on American life. First time visitors to the USA often have a strange nostalgic feeling about the New York skyline or the Statue of Liberty. They have never been there before but they have ‘already seen it’ in their past.’

This strikes me as a crucial point regarding south-north (that is, in the Gramscian sense) viewing practices, and with a history in and between Brazil and France that I’m still uncovering. But one could at least say that without a historical context the Brazilian film will be viewed with the expectation of the ‘exotic’ while the French film will be viewed with the expectation of certain familiar cultural markers, like the Eiffel Tower or the Champs-Élysées.*

Some comrades in Third Cinema, according to Gabriel, have been ‘progressive faculty, students and film journals’ in the US and Europe, though he is careful to add that claiming solidarity is not enough to advance the ‘goal of cultural liberation.’ At the very least, those writers and thinkers who see themselves as true supporters of such a process can shun the ‘West’s cultural synchronisation with itself, [where] in its desire to globalise and homogenise world cinema and cultures, critical theory is applied.’

It’s not just the terms of critical theory that threaten the endeavor of ‘cultural liberation,’ but a ‘world cinematic language’ (Gabriel quotes the Brazilian Glauber Rocha) ‘under the dictatorship of Coppola and Godard.’**  Buñuel is even harsher on the question of deliberate academic obscurantism, and Gabriel’s excerpt from My Last Sigh: The Autobiography of Luis Buñuel*** bears quoting in full:

As the honorary president of the Entro de Capacitacion Cinematografica in Mexico City, I once went to visit the school and was introduced to several professors, including a young man in a suit and tie who blushed a good deal. When I asked him what he taught, he replied, ‘The Semiology of the Clonic Image.’ I could have murdered him on the spot. By the way, when this kind of jargon (a typically Parisian phenomenon) works its way into the educational system, it wreaks absolute havoc in underdeveloped countries. It’s the clearest sign, in my opinion, of cultural colonialism.

Las Hurdes/Land Without Bread, Luis Buñuel

Cultural colonialism is what Gabriel phrased as ‘”law and order” criticism,’ that is, the negation of the culture of Third Cinema in a ‘system of unequal cultural and symbolic exchange.’ Certain writers might read these words defensively or even derisively; no one wants to call their critical theory ‘unequal,’ much less ‘colonialist.’ But it’s a good way to return to the question of so-called national cinema, which I think is a falsely inherited idea, and the complexities of the transnational. Even this term is circumspect for Gabriel, who rejects transhistoricism or transculturalism to ask instead who develops, for whom, and under what conditions. These are necessary questions in the age of decaying but still ferociously unequal capitalism. Italic reminders: ‘Whose aesthetics? Whose pleasure?’ If the condition of filmmakers in the so-called Third World (not to mention non-conforming filmmakers of the industrialized ‘West’) are still swayed by market forces, Gabriel’s undeterred insistence on taking back ownership (whose? whose?) for production and viewing practices is crucial medicine for anyone writing on cultural forms to think about honestly.

The cinema of the ‘transnational’ 21st-century may seem more interconnected than before, and the innovations of web archives, content-streaming, Youtube, etc. may make works more accessible than ever, but we need only return to the Kuleshov-Hitchcock example to see that filmmakers have been borrowing and experimenting along lines of conflict since at least the invention of film. Gabriel:

If, as it currently seems, mainstream cinema needs 40 million dollars plus for the sheer quality of its production, Third Cinema practices can live without it. The unifying impulse that originally spurred Third Cinema was and is a need for the primacy of subject matter over material considerations. To know this is to acknowledge the energy of social commitment and vision concentrated or lodged within it.

The strength of the cinema of the future (at least, the cinema I want) lies in the acknowledgment, not obfuscation, of conflict—chiefly political and economic—and the power of subject matter and commitment to liberation.


* As a kid growing up in (Francophile) north Tehran I saw so many images of the Champs-Élysées and heard it uttered so intimately, that seeing the real thing years later, littered with KFCs, Burger Kings and pharmaceutical chains, failed to live up to that certain charm of imagination and visual expectation.

** My forthcoming paper is exactly on the question of Godard’s 1960s film language along with that of Brazilian filmmakers, so this is a point I’ll have more to say on later.

*** Deeply appreciative of the college film professor who assigned this book as part of her Buñuel course. Best ‘mandatory’ reading ever.

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