A Minimal Definition of Non-Euroatlantic Film

walden, 21/05/2004 v kategoriji novice

Nikolai Jeffs for isolacinema.org

nik jeffs, festivalski kronikWhat, if anything, is common to the films of Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America? The first possibility in the search for useful definitions of such films could examine their conditions of production. These are frequently curtailed by economic relations of semi- or underdevelopment that influence the technical, narrative, and genre possibilities of a given film. For instance, East European science fiction or fantasy (think of Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Solaris or the use of classical trick camera in the films of Jan ? vankmayer) cannot compete with the expensive special effects of Star Wars.

This may seem like a condition of impoverished expression. It brings with it, however, nothing less than a sense of sustainable cultural development. Namely, what such instances avoid, is precisely that post-modern reification and commodification by which technological development can be the ends rather than the means of cultural expression; its capital intensive nature further censoring the already highly limited accessibility to the medium of film.

Another possibility in the search for definitions is to focus on aspects of tradition and cultural context. Films of the Non-Euroatlantic world, the global South, are often the products of societies with limited literacy. Thus, their content and narrative are frequently reflective of their predominantly orally conditioned social relations and epistemologies. The texture of such films can also be further influenced by the fact that other forms of spectacular life (TV commercials) have not necessarily fully penetrated Southern societies and have thus not conditioned their audiences into certain expectations concerning the particular combination and continuity of elements necessary to uphold a coherent storyline and interest.

A historically deeper as well as synchronically wider appreciation of culture can also be detected. Let us take a nearly random example of this. Thus, the cultural critic Edward Said makes the interesting observation that popular Arab films up to 1967 have their narratives interwoven with some theatrical or similarly spectacular scene. According to Said, this arises out of a tradition that is also shared by A Thousand and One Nights and in which the dramatization of storytelling is an integral part of the storytelling itself.

Such aspects in which a given tradition is honoured as well as sublimated into a different cultural form, can serve to undermine not only the notion of tradition as something essentially static and therefore conservative, but also give it a living form which each generation discovers anew. Needless to add, it is this interplay with tradition, and the various cultural forms in which it manifests itself in, which works against notions of specialization and hierarchy that govern the cultural field today.

Hence, the incorporation of different cultural voices past and present serves neither as their reification nor to uphold the primacy of one form (film) over the other (literature, music). Instead, it lays bare the necessarily interconnected nature of culture in particular and social life in general.

Furthermore, and given the dominance of Euroatlantic or Northern film globally, its Southern counterpart will attempt to deploy different strategies in which to gain recognition and challenge such dominance. These strategies may range from a desire to be fully assimilated with Western cinematic traditions to more radical attempts at independence. They may run from merely aesthetic statements to those that include more explicit pronouncements on global economic and political subordination. The crucial thing is that the very fact of Northern cinematic dominance is something that the Southern filmmaker (consciously or unconsciously) frequently takes into account and thus the Northern film joins other local cultural elements in being the intertext of a given film. This is, by very virtue of this fact, therefore always necessarily hybrid and globalized.
In looking for ways in which to understand non-Euroatlantic film, one also cannot ignore more specific aesthetic and technical strategies either. In his influential definition of “Third film” (as the film of the Third World), Teshome Gabriel argues that dominant strategies deployed by such film include the restricted use of lighting, low/high camera angles, a tendency towards static camera perspectives, location shooting with non-professionals and direct audience address, etc., etc.

All the above are extremely useful starting points. They lose their value, however, once they stop being historically descriptive and start being prescriptive in the sense that they become the means by which to sift the authentic Southern film from that fatally tainted with Eurocentric cultural, economic and other imperialism.

Namely, the danger of this is that it just reproduces one of the basic tenets of Eurocentric thought itself and by which the East European, Asian, African and Latin American is always understood in terms of a fundamental and essential difference, an Otherness, to the Eurocentric self. The obvious fault does do not just stop in demonising the North while concurrently mystifying and romanticising the South. It can also consist of – and in the terms of a certain Third World pan-nationalism characteristic of the 1960s and 1970s – seeing the South as a site of cultural and other emancipation not only in itself but also for itself.

In all this, what can be therefore become all to quickly lost is the sense of immense social and cultural heterogeneity as well struggle for expression and recognition that is internal to a global South and North that are also highly interconnected with each other.

We can also lose sight of the degree to which cultural forms arise out of complex and fluid strategic negotiations, the end meaning of which changes according to the different locations, historical periods in which they find themselves and social relations around which we seek to reinterpret their meaning. Thus, what seems ideological and reactionary in one context can become utopian and progressive in another. At the same time what may come across as highly innovative document of liberationary cultural nationalism may conceal extremely problematic attitudes towards issues of class, gender, and ethnic minorities. To adapt a point that Bertolt Brecht once made in relation to literary realism - a given film, or indeed genre, will be progressive in one season and reactionary in another. Likewise, its status as either high or low art will also change.

Consider the case of some popular Hollywood film genres. We will frequently find that they build on the Manichean dichotomies of race as well as Eurocentric understandings of history. For instance, in the classical film Western, Indians are not only the evil but they are also one that is an obstacle to progress. In a romance as Gone with the Wind, the end of slavery in the South is also the end of its civilization, something that the local black population just cannot fully appreciate. In such films like Black Hawk Down, Africans exists not just as stereotypes – as they do in many contemporary films – but as an alien and dehumanised swarm.

As the cultural critic Frantz Fanon once pointed out one result of this is that non-white post-colonial subjects identify with the positivity of whiteness while concurrently internalising the negativity of their own blackness. This produces a split personality that has black skin but wears a white mask. This self is also further alienated because it cannot identify with the members of its own community and redirects the aggression arising out of such negativity back upon them.

Eurocentric culture can serve as an instrument through which subjects internalise the ideology of (post)colonial domination. Indeed, the practical consequences of this can express themselves in quite concrete forms. The first president of independent Ghana and staunch pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah once connected the racist “message” of neo-colonial or rather Eurocentric popular culture with explicit forms of political neutralization in terms that are still relevant today: “The cinema stories of fabulous Hollywood are loaded. One has only to listen to the cheers of an African audience as Hollywood’s heroes slaughter red Indians or Asiatics to understand the effectiveness of this weapon. For, in the developing countries were the colonialist heritage has left a vast majority still illiterate, even the smallest child gets the message…And along with murder and the Wild West goes an incessant barrage of anti-socialist propaganda, in which the trade union man, the revolutionary, or the man of dark skin is generally cast as the villain, while the policeman, the gum-shoe, the Federal agent – in a word, the CIA-type spy – is ever the hero. Here, truly, is the ideological under-belly of those political murders which so often use local people as their instruments.”

In this context, what are we then to make of the seemingly reified popular forms such as Nigerian video thrillers or Hong Kong Kung Fu films? It can be argued that such genres are debased inasmuch as they offer escapism and a particular form of social control (what the philosopher Herbert Marcuse would call repressive tolerance) precisely through their generosity in the depiction of violence and the commodification of women as well as human life in general.
Yet it is crucial to remember that appropriating or supplanting eurocentric popular genres is a way in which to satisfy the demand of domestic audiences for such genres that simultaneously supplants their racist as well neocolonial ideology precisely by inserting local subjects and settings and casting these in the prisms of social rather than racial modes of causality.
In other words, a minimal definition through which to understand non-Euroatlantic film builds on their most obvious feature of having non-Euroatlantic subjects at the heart of their narrative. Instead of being stereotyped (the African-American as a criminal, the Balkan subject as an inherently violent ethnocentric automaton, etc, etc,), the characters in these films have subjectivity, a complex psychology, an active relationship to their social and natural environment and the capability of making history.

Of course, precisely because it is so obvious, this seems like a somewhat banal observation. Yet, in an the age of a pseudo-universalistic globalisation by which dominant Euroatlantic subjects and cultural forms are often cast as metonymic in relation to global society and culture as a whole, and by which if history is not over then the only dynamic locus is to be found in the West, such basic anti-racist revisions into our current society of the spectacle are crucial.

Such interventions may still be mediated by the centre as that condition which still governs much of the way in which peripheral and semi-peripheral societies communicate amongst themselves. They also still remain part of the spectacle in general. Nevertheless, inasmuch as they bring a certain cultural and political heterogeneity to our impoverished perception of the world, then they also bring us at least some steps closer to understanding, and therefore also changing, its reality. Not least because the very watching of such films is already an exercise that allows us a fuller appreciation of social life: a highly individualized aesthetic experience becomes one that is also pedagogical, political and collective precisely because it engages with more subtly globalised, one would be tempted to say humanized, views of our times.