09 April 2018

Two Books on Third World Cinema

Any discussion of Third World films should begin with definition of the concept of the Third World. Roy Armes in Third World Film Making and the West (University of California Press, 1987), defines Third World countries as those once colonized nations that are still underdeveloped because of their economic exploitation by the West. This, I assume, accounts for the rather strange title of this book since the emphasis here is given to the relationship between Third World filmmaking in particular, and the West in general. Yet, I did not find that this emphasis was reflected in the writing. And for good reason, since the primary concern of a Third World filmmaker is not his relationship to the West (although this may be one of his concerns) but his country and his people. It seems to me that the title points to an uneasiness that Roy Armes feels in writing about this subject. It is hard to pinpoint why he feels so uneasy.

The book is thoroughly researched and highly informative and yet reading it leaves me feeling frustrated and angry. Perhaps Armes' uneasiness stems from the fact that he is a First World critic writing about Third World films. I don't think that this is necessarily bad. Critics in the First World can be of great help in bringing these films and their issues to the attention of the public. But, in trying to give an objective, scholarly account of Third World filmmaking, Armes adopts the very stance towards these filmmakers that they are fighting against. That is, he takes the Third World filmmakers as his object of study, in the scientific manner, and therefore he cannot avoid objectifying them and adopting a somewhat paternalistic tone. Third World filmmakers are struggling to become subjects rather than the objects that they had been in a colonial context.  They are trying to define their own identity as separate from the West rather than in relation to it. They are fighting to find their own language and their own identity centered in their own culture. But of course, this is true only of a certain kind of Third World filmmaker and this point brings up another problem with the book.

Roy Armes' aim is to give an overview of Third World films and thus he includes both films that are made solely for the purpose of entertainment and those that deal with social and political issues. The aims is laudable in itself, since it allows for a fuller understand of Third World film culture as it exists but it tends to be rather disappointing in practice. First of all, there are so many films covered that the reader tends to get lost in a mess of details. Few of the films are described in enough detail to make them come alive in the mind of the reader, expect at the end, in the "auteur" section, and even here there are problems. Four of the filmmakers focused upon in this section, that is Glauber Rocha, Yilmaz Guney, Ousmane Sembene and Jorge Sanjines, are politically committed and even the other two, Satyajit Ray and Youssef Chahine, are concerned with social issues. And yet, although Roy Armes is obviously sympathetic to their aims and often praises their films for the manner in which they communicate the urgency of these issues to the audience there is an ambiguity in his writing which is disturbing. This ambiguity shows up even in the discussion of particular films. For instance, Blood of the Condor (1969), directed by Jorge Sanjines, is a film which denounces the US for its attempts to decimate the Indian population of Bolivia by sterilizing its women without their knowledge or consent. Somehow, Armes (1987, p. 298) can reduce this to "the ruinous impact of US Peace Corps workers, who bring alien values (and convert sterilization) to the Altiplano."

This ambiguity is also present throughout the rest of the book. For instance, in "Part Two: Theory and Practice of Third World Film Making." When writing about the revolutionary Third World filmmakers and theorists of the 1960s, he makes this statement--"To some extent, the optimism of the late 1960s has proved to be ill founded, having underestimated in particular the extremes to which the United States is willing to go to protect its 'interests'" (Armes, 1987, p. 100). How anyone could read Solanas and Getino's seminal article, "For a Third Cinema" in Nichols' edited collection Movies and Methods Vol. 1 (which Armes quotes in his chapter on Third Cinema) with its call for a revolutionary cinema in the face of US imperialist domination, or see their epic documentary, The Hour of the Furnaces (1968), with its bitter denunciation of Third World exploitation and call these filmmakers optimistic and unwilling to face the extremes that the US will go to is beyond me. This chapter somehow gives the impression that the fight against imperialism might be well-meaning but useless.

Strangely enough, Armes seems almost to apologize for having to include a discussion of the films of Cuba, Angola and China in his book. Perhaps he feels this way because their revolutions were successful. However, as he himself points out, these countries were colonies and therefore they also suffered from underdevelopment. But they have become Marxist and somehow Armes feels that he should focus on "developing countries with a market economy" (Armes, 1987, p. 10). Why is this? There are problems, in terms of Third Cinema, with a communist country like China that has taken up socialist realism as its official film style. But, if he is willing to include commercial films, why not socialist realism? As for Angola and Cuba, he himself admits that to omit them would cause problems since they have exerted a great influence on the films of Latin America and Africa. So in the end he includes these Marxist countries and certainly he would have a hard time justifying their exclusion. But why the apologies? Questions like these kept cropping up as I read the book and made me rather uneasy.

And yet, the book is so well researched that it will be endlessly useful to anyone interested in the filed. The bibliography alone is worth the price of the book as in runs to 34 pages. In some ways, it is too well researched for the different points-of-view on each issue are set out at such length that one loses interest in the debate. Armes' stance is so ambiguous that it is hard to tell what his point-of-view might be. His objective approach to the subject matter again serves him badly. Yet his goals for the book seem ideal and the structure well thought out. One can only agree that films should be studied in relation to their social, cultural and economic context. The historical background that he gives for each country that he covers is highly useful. The discussion of the "Theory and Practice of Third World Filmmaking," which takes up the second part of the book is, I think, a necessity for any book on the subject of Third World film. The third part on the "National Film Industries" is also useful for it provides the background necessary for the discussion of the particular filmmakers that takes up the fourth and last part of the book.

Is it exactly this kind of carefully structured approach to the subject that is missing in Film and Politics in the Third World, edited by John D. H. Downing. This book is a collection of essays about Third World films and interviews with Third World filmmakers. The essays deal with the films both in terms of their place in national cinemas an as works of particular authors. But we are not given a carefully structured introduction to the subject as in Roy Armes' book. The foreword by Downing is only two pages long. There is barely any attempt to define the term, Third World, or what the theoretical context of the study of Third World film might be. Yet, I think that it is the more useful of the two books, particularly for someone who has never studied the subject before.

The strength of the book resides in the fact that it is a collection of essays written by a variety of authors. Therefore, the reader can experience a number of different approaches to Third World film and yet each approach is consistent within itself since it forms the basis of each essay. The essays focus on one particular national cinema or filmmaker from the point-of-view of one writer rather than the complication of different points-of-view that one gets in Armes' book. Downing has also been careful to include many Third World writers and the concern that they fell for the fate of their own people informs the essays with an urgency that cannot be duplicated by the objective point-of-view. The weakness of the book, however, can also be found in this diversity of approaches for, unavoidably, some of the essays are weaker in quality than other.

This book is also very useful because it covers a wide range of countries. The films of some of these, such as those of Iran and China, are not very well known and Downing performs a real service in bringing them to our attention. If Downing's goal is that of "communicating artistic excellence (with a political sting), and of developing international comprehension in a nation which seems bent on understanding neither others nor itself" (1987, Foreword, p. x), it is well served by the book. The biggest flaw in this book is the need for either a long introduction or the inclusion of some essays on the theory and history of the subject. In part this lack is made up by interviews with the filmmakers themselves. For no one can speak as lucidly and passionately as, for example, Sembene Ousmane, the great African filmmaker, on the needs of his people and on the necessity of making films that will fill these needs. Downing does to some extent set the article in their historical and political context for the reader by sometimes providing introductions to the essays and by providing footnotes as well.

The title of Downing's book, Film and Politics in the Third World, seems to me to be, as in Armes' case, also somewhat ambiguous. I gather that he is trying to account for a broader spectrum of subjects than those that would only be related to political films per se. Some of the filmmakers, such as the Algerian Merzak Allouache, are themselves avoiding the political propaganda type of film, or as in the case of the Chinese filmmaker Xie Jin, the rigors of socialist realism. The weakness of the title is that it is ambiguous, since one could write about commercial Third World films and discuss their relation to politics. A reading of the book makes it obvious that this is not what Downing is interested in.

On the whole, the two books complement each other. Roy Armes' book is useful for the historical background that it provides. Downing's book communicates the aims and concerns of Third World filmmakers and the passion and urgency that they fell for their subject. One thing that is missing in both books is the attempt to define a style or cinematic language which might be shared by politically and socially conscious filmmakers of the Third World. It is something that Teshome Gabriel tries to do in his pioneering work, Third Cinema in the Third World: The Aesthetics of Liberation, and I think that it is an important part of the discussion on Third World film.

[This essay is by media studies scholar Mary Alemany-Galway, who received an M.A. in film studies from UCLA and has taught film studies at Concordia University in Montreal. At the time of its original publication in the important and now long-running Canadian film studies journal CineAction (No. 18, Fall 1989, pp. 64-65), she was an independent researcher working on her doctorate in post-modernism and film studies. More recently, she is a co-editor of the influential collection of essays Peter Greenaway's Postmodern/Poststructural Cinema and author of the groundbreaking A Postmodern Cinema: The Voice of the Other in Canadian Film, and Media Studies Program Co-ordinator at Massey University in New Zealand.]

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