09 April 2015

Third Cinema in the Third World

With the first screenings of films like The Hour of the Furnaces by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino (1968), Black Girl by Ousmane Sembene (1966), or Memories of Underdevelopment by Tomas Gutierrez Alea (1968), moviegoers were confronted with a new spectrum of ideas, emotions, and images. A new cinema emerged from countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin American that directly assaulted the colonial past. The forebearers of Third World Cinema proclaimed both the necessity and the capability of defining the terms of their cultural expression. In his book Third Cinema in the Third World: The Aesthetics of Liberation (UMI Research Press, 1982), Teshome H. Gabriel not only analyzes some of these films, but examines interrelationships that determine Third World cinema: not simply films produced within the Third World, but an alternative cinema, '...a cinema of decolonization and for liberation... a Third Cinema.'

For Gabriel, Third Cinema is 'built on the rejection of the concepts and propositions of traditional cinema, as presented by Hollywood.' It also transcends national boundaries: 'Third Cinema is really not so much where it is made, or even who makes it, but rather, the ideology it espouses and the consciousness it displays.' It is a cinema that has evolved with, grown out of, and inspired anti-colonial liberation struggles; it is a part of the process of shaping national cultural identities. Third Cinema rejects the commercial priorities that dominate most Western models of filmmaking.

Gabriel clearly differentiates his approach from structuralist and semiological critical studies, methods he finds inappropriate for a full understanding of Third World cinema. He first outlines his conceptual framework, based on the work of theoreticians such Louis Althusser, Frantz Fanon, and Amilcar Cabral. All three have contributed to an understanding of the development ideological consciousness and the role played by mass communications in that process. But Fanon and Cabral figure prominently because of the direct experience of Third World struggles. Adopting Cabral's and Fanon's analysis, Gabriel enlists filmmaking, like other cultural activity, as a '"weapon" in the struggle for independence.'

His central thesis, then, is that 'any theory and criticism of film within the context of Third Cinema cannot be separated from the practical uses of film.' The implications of this position become clear when contrasted with the ideas proposed in Julianne Burton's essay 'Marginal Cinemas and Mainstream Critical Theory,' in the May-August 1985 issue of Screen, where she argues for the interdependence of critical theory from the developed world and Third World film. Gabriel, however, finds this relationship premature, even dangerous, because it presupposes a common purpose. Without rejecting Western critical theory, he attempts to elaborate upon and, indeed, discover the theoretical threads within Third World cinema. 
...any definition of film outside of the economical and social sphere has the tendency to see meaning in 'form' alone. A study which treats film strictly as a metasystem, does not take into account the external factors influencing it or the ideological mediation in operation, is misleading, and a gross error in any analysis of cinema.
Throughout his book, Gabriel synthesizes a theory of cinema based upon the objectives and definitions utilized and developed by Third World filmmakers themselves. Burton, on the other hand, disparages this.
Film criticism in [Latin America] suffers from... [an] imbalance in that the vast majority of Latin American film journals have been founded and edited by people who are also directly involved in producing and promoting independent national cinema.
What Gabriel considers a fundamental strength, Burton views as a weakness. Although both would probably agree on the causes of this situation, their differing appraisals of the benefits raises some basic questions.

Among progressive filmmakers in the United States there has been little open dialogue regarding theoretical or ideological assumptions. Over the years, the historical separation between theoretician and filmmaker has become institutionalized to everyone's detriment. Film as a commodity first and art second (if at all) has been historically embedded within the North American film industry. Now, this skewed division is further buttressed by an ever-expanding educational system that quite often presents film production and film theory as conflicting interests. Thus we have distinctions like critical studies, vs. film production, cinema studies vs. filmmaking, political films vs. films notarized as art. What these separations create is a peripheral cinema that is socially conscious, but for the most part ideologically invisible. In fact, many progressive filmmakers in North America and Europe concentrate on Third World struggles at the expense of their own experiences. Finding the criticism produced under these conditions inadequate, Gabriel stresses, and Burton sidesteps, the political and social context within which Third World cinema has evolved.

Gabriel seems to revert to simplistic critical methods, however, when he attempts to analyze 'major themes in Third World Cinema,' such as class, culture, religion, sexism, and armed struggle. The author acknowledges the inadequacy of an approach that separates these themes and then proceeds to do just that. Indeed, this presentation seems a throwback to a restrictive, narrow, and debilitating thematic analysis, which Gabriel says he is trying to expand. Many of the films mentioned in this chapter--for instance, Lucia, Last Grave at Dimbaza, The Last Supper, and The Promised Land--function thematically on more than one level, often establishing dialectical relationships that require a complex analytical method.

Gabriel does manage to avoid the temptation to create inappropriate categories in his section on 'revolutionary films,' where he refines his definition of revolutionary cinema through an extended comparison of three films: Sembene's Emitai, Humberto Solas's Lucia, and Miguel Littin's The Promised Land. Littin judges a film revoluationary 'through the contract that it establishes with its public principally through its influences as a mobilizing agent for revolutionary action.' Sembene, however, had different thoughts about his film Mandabi: 'I had no belief that after people saw it they would go out and make a revolution.' In Gabriel's definition, revolutionary cinema is not bound by a specific model, but ranges from the intentionally incendiary to the culturally affirmative.

Gabriel also addresses the related question, what are the politics of style? Do similar ideologies necessitate similar styles? Does the absence of close-ups mean that the film cannot be socialist? Or, does the preponderance of Soviet-style montage mean that a film is less bourgeois? Gabriel believes that no single style is bound to a particular ideology, abut that a distinct style reveals a film's ideological undercurrents. Style is not simply a function of directorial design; it also consciously  reflects a film's national origins and aspirations to maintain a national identity. This relationship is elaborated in Gabriel's analysis of four sets of films, including Bay of Pigs (USA/NBC) and Playa Giron (Cuba). These two films depict the same historical event but differ radically in both perspective and intent: the NBC film individualizes history; the Cuban film emphasizes the collective meaning of history. In Bay of Pigs the leaders of the U.S. government assume the foreground, and the CIA-financed invasion force is relegated to a supporting role. Thus, the CIA becomes the elusive villain responsible for the aborted invasion. But in Playa Giron, the Cuban people become the heroes, while Castro plays a minimal role. Both films retell an event. The historical episode retold in Bay of Pigs reproduces an illusion of truth and objectivity. Playa Giron, on the other hand, 'thus acquires a self-reflective dimension as it reveals the process of its construction while foregrounding the problematic relation between history (the events) and fiction (their recreation).'

Gabriel concludes with an important distinction, 'Cultural Codes vs. Ideological Codes,' based on the theoretic concepts of Cabral, who '...interprets the Third World struggles for national liberation not only as a product of culture, but also as a determinant of culture.' This is in keeping with Gabriel's whole project: to demystify the various elements of Third World cinema, presented not only as actual accomplishments, but as possibilities as well. In his conclusion he states, 'Third Cinema aims at a destruction and construction at the same time...' And his book acknowledges and dissects both sides of this contradiction. Gabriel's study should prove important for those trying to reconcile their own artistic imperatives with everyday social reality.'

[This is a slightly edited version of a review written by Allan Siegel, at the time associate director of Third World Newsreel. It originally appeared in the film and video monthly journal The Independent, Vol. 9, No. 2, (March 1986), pp. 27-28.]

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