Contrapuntal Reading in World Cinema

CJ_Final.indd Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier
 Vol. 2(1) Winter 2014
 Eralda L. Lameborshi
 Stephen F. Austin State University


The discomfort with foreign films is, at least to a significant degree, the result of cultural differences between students in an American college classroom and the film’s events. Students often blame subtitles, but the root of this discomfort is more accurately the students’ lack of historical and cultural tools with which to read world cinema. Screening celebrated and widely-distributed foreign films in Western markets – like The Curse of the Golden Flower (2006), Before the Rain (1994), Underground (1994), Lamerica (1994), The Promise (2005), Like Water for Chocolate (1992), etc. – is one way for teachers to address the absence of cultural and historical knowledge, but often these films also rely upon unfamiliar cultural representations. Films that exoticize and homogenize their cultural settings and ones which flatten historical narratives through tidy explanations have most international reach. However, in them there is an over-reliance on stereotypes and dominant historical narratives, making them more easily accessible to an international audience. As a result, they do not require the spectator to look for the creases and folds of cultural and historical complexity and specificity.

Meanwhile, other foreign films that depict history in complex and sophisticated ways are often low budget, local productions that are not well distributed. I am referring to films like East West East (2008), Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (1996), The World (2004), and No Man’s Land (2001). These films, although modest in their earnings, are mapped in world cinema because of successful screenings in small film festivals and reception of positive academic criticism, although there are exceptions as in the case of No Man’s Land (NML), which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2001. I include these films under the rubric of world cinema because they emphasize the heterogeneity of the regions they narrate, and they complicate narratives by decentralizing dominant historical and cultural accounts and placing them in conversation with marginal ones.

My intention is not to draw a difference whereby films are put into good and bad world cinema categories as this would be an ineffectual way to address a central issue for world cinema: representation. Representation depends on the position from which the viewing occurs, and it is a process of curating information. What the camera chooses to include in the frame is of utmost importance, but so is the space outside the frame. How do we account for the silenced narratives and, more importantly, how do we recover them? Representation invites us to question the ability and privilege of the film, the director, or the producer to speak about a historical and cultural event. In Culture and Imperialism Edward W. Said writes: “[T[he power even in casual conversation to represent what is beyond metropolitan borders derives from the power of an imperial society, and that power takes the discursive form of a reshaping or reordering of ‘raw’ or primitive data into the local conventions of European narrative and formal utterance” (Said 1993, 99). Said addresses the novel’s role in the imperialist ideology of conquest, but his argument is also useful in discussions of world cinema and representation. It urges us to consider the positions of the audiences, the directors, and the producers. There is power in this ability to collect and reconstruct knowledge about histories and cultures, and it is crucial to analyze these junctures in world cinema classrooms.

“We all write and speak from…a history and a culture which is specific. What we say is always ‘in context,’ positioned,” writes Stuart Hall (Hall 2000, 704). Nevertheless, positionality is often unaccounted for in world cinema analysis. We may recognize that cinematic representations, like Before the Rain or Underground, rely upon transparent and stable forms of identity and history. The directors, Milcho Manchevski and Emir Kusturica, are from the Former Yugoslav Republic (FYR), and yet their representations rely on constructed Balkan characteristics that are coded as essential expressions of Balkan identity. Manchevski’s narrative relies too easily on the “monopoly [the Balkans have] over barbarity” (Todorova 1997, 7), and Kusturica’s film is often accused of being pro-Serbian propaganda. Both films have had wide international reach; the reasons vary and are beyond the scope of our discussion, but suffice it to say that both films rehearse conceptions of Eastern Europe as uncivilized (Wolff 1994, 4). Thus, representation in these two cases is determined by the international audience’s expectations. In replaying well-known stereotypes about the Balkans the films are accessible, which facilitates their reach outside of the FYR’s borders.

Therefore, the question persists: how might teachers of world cinema account for the space outside the frame, for the silenced narratives, and for the totality of representation? In my classroom I place films about the same historical events in conversation mimicking what Said calls contrapuntal reading, defined as the reading of a text (or film) globally, noting that “we must take into account all sorts of spatial or geographical and rhetorical practices – inflections, limits, constraints, intrusions, inclusions, prohibitions – all of them tending to elucidate a complex and uneven topography” (Said 1993, 318). Said is concerned with teasing out and extending the narratives that are often “silent or marginally present or ideologically repressed” (Said 1993, 66) in canonical texts. Such an approach helps bridge cultural distances, fill in empty historical spaces, and address the common problem of coverage in a film classroom, since it opens up the possibility of including films with limited distribution. Since my interest is in post-1989 Eastern European film, historical and cultural contextualization gives students access to signal events and aids them in understanding different cinematic representations of the region. Often, contextualizing takes the form of teaching against common misrepresentation. Contrapuntal reading is especially effective in the context of Eastern European film, and in an attempt to illustrate a version of such a reading, I will focus the following discussion on two films about the Siege of Sarajevo.

In the Land of Blood and Honey (2011, ILBH), was written and directed by Angelina Jolie, and it tells the story of Danijel, a Bosnian Serb, and Ajla, a Bosnian Muslim. They meet and fall in love before the war begins, but their world is torn apart during the siege. Their love is traced through the war as Danijel, a captain in the Serbian army, is conflicted about his feelings for Ajla.  Danijel’s inner conflict becomes overwhelming once we meet his father, Nebojsa, a general in the Serbian army and a staunch nationalist. ILBH is Jolie’s directorial debut and her position on the war is consistent with international attitudes about the conflict, although the film has been criticized for its tendency to draw upon the bad Serb-good Muslim narrative. Despite such a shortcoming, the film is accessible because the central love story is a well-rehearsed plot device of western filmmaking; it follows the Shakespearean tradition of the star-crossed lovers. The message is filtered through didactic moments that explain in broad strokes to global audiences the complex ethnic, religious, and political history of the conflict. This context is provided in conversations Danijel has with his father as in the clip below.

Nebojsa represents the Greater Serbia philosophy with no apologies and no nuance; thus the conflict is flattened, historical space remains already represented in division, and Nebojsa sounds like the ultimate villain as he urges Danijel to “get [his] numbers up and finish cleansing [the] area.” We see Danijel’s love for Ajla affect his duties as a soldier, but he is unable to fully break free from the old history of bloodshed and hatred.[1] This is a common narrative about Balkan conflicts that reiterates attitudes with roots in the eighteenth-century Western European travel narratives in the region. Jolie’s project delivers a transparent and simple conflict and a subsequent reading of ILBH with NML illuminates the issue.

NML is a Bosnian film directed by Danis Tanović. It takes place in a trench, a “no man’s land,” where two Bosnian Muslim fighters, Čiki and Cera, are stranded with a Serb soldier, Nino. Neither side recognizes the soldiers when they come out of the trench waving their white t-shirts, and the Serbian front line begins to bomb the trench. Cera is immobile because Nino’s partner, who dies earlier in the film, has placed Cera’s body over a ‘bouncing bomb.’ UNPROFOR forces are called to investigate. The UN commander’s initial orders are to stay out of the issue; but when one of the UN squadron disobeys and uses a journalist’s ambitions to reach the trench, the audience realizes that a substantial part of the narrative is about UN’s ineffectual presence.

Nino and Čiki speak the same language, they love the same land, they know the same girl with whom Čiki was in love before the war, they have coexisted peacefully for years, and yet, they find themselves on a disfigured no man’s land, full of distrust and hatred for one another. Tanović does not give easy answers, however. As we can see in the clip below, Nino only admits that the Serbs started the war after Čiki threatens to shoot him, a scene that is repeated a few minutes later when Nino has the gun and Čiki has to say that the Bosnian Muslims started the war. The answer depends on who has the gun.

Tanović does not give a chronology of the war; he does not attribute reason and civility to one side or the other. His directorial choice, unlike in Jolie’s film, keeps the audience wondering and wanting a clear answer, and it is precisely this desire that elicits a closer look at the history and reasons for the war. Further, Tanović’s choice to examine the role of the UN forces is an indictment of the international community. The UN is ineffectual, a point made by Nebojsa in ILBH as well: “Of course they [the UN] see, but they will do nothing. Serbs are the only serious army in this part of Europe.” Tanović’s indictment of the foreign press is also an important aspect of the film, because conflict zones become spaces of spectacle and journalists gain credibility by reporting the atrocities they witness. Journalists are depicted as tourists of sites of suffering. The film questions the representations of the war by showing that the motivation for reporting war is journalistic fame, rather than approximating objective truth.

Reading ILBH with NML is productive because students become invested in Jolie’s characters who are victims of historical and ideological boundaries that block their individualization and fulfillment (Samardzija 2012, 64). ILBH forces students to “prioritize the entirety of social and economic relations…[and] individual will and choice become secondary to history” (Samardzija 2012, 65). Investing students in history is a primer for films like NML that are more nuanced and do not provide tidy answers. In addition, NML develops the story of the Siege of Sarajevo by detailing the futile presence of the UN peacekeeping troops, gesturing toward a more complete geography of the conflict. In reading ILBH and NML together, the film classroom can be transformed into a space where history is examined in breadth and depth, tracing different players, contributors, and participants in the conflict, not in an attempt to pass out blame or resolve the question of war altogether, but in order to create a space where humanities students can see the omissions and inclusions, the amplified and the voiceless, and thus gain a better understanding of the stories films tell. Ultimately, such a reading in the context of Eastern European cinema provides a rich network of ideas and associations, a more effective representation of the religious and ethnic differences, and a clearer understanding of an area that has been historically misunderstood and misrepresented.

[1] For more on Eastern European representation see Larry Wolff’s Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment (1994); Maria Todorova’s Imagining the Balkans (1997); Andrew Hammond’s The Debated Lands: British and American Representations of the Balkans (2007); Andrew Hammond’s The Balkans and the West (2004).

Works Cited

Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation.” In Film and Theory: An Anthology, edited by Robert Stam and Toby Miller, 704-732. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000.

In the Land of Blood and Honey, directed by Angelina Jolie (2011, GK Films), iTunes.

No Man’s Land, directed by Danis Tanović (2001, Noé Productions, Fabrica, Man’s Films), iTunes.

Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage, 1993.

Samardzija, Zoran. “Did Somebody Say Communism in the Classroom? Or The Value of Analyzing Totality in Recent Serbian Cinema.” In A Companion to Eastern European Cinemas, edited by Anikó Imre, 63-76. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

Todorova, Maria. Imagining the Balkans. New York: Oxford UP, 1997.

Wolff, Larry. Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1994.

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