Not Many, but One: A Case-Study Approach to Teaching World Cinema

CJ_Final.indd  Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier
 Vol. 2(1) Winter 2014
 Jeffrey Middents
 American University

When I started teaching a single-semester course called “The Cinemas of Latin America” in 2001, I replicated a regionally oriented model related to the study of national cinemas that I had learned from. The very multiplicity of cinemas was refreshing and only a handful of older films were available on DVD with subtitles, so choosing what films to screen and teach was relatively simple. Four years later, as more movies became available and interest in Latin American cinema exploded (in part thanks to the prominent rise of actor Gael García Bernal and the directors Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu), I found my course bloated with too many topics and films (both new and newly released) to cover and not enough time to handle it all. Questions that I had not had to worry about with a limited selection of film possibilities surfaced as the scope of the course grew: How important is teaching a canon? What do we do with peripheral, exploitation, popular, or genre films? And how could I teach all the material that I wanted within a single semester? At least I was only concerned with teaching the cinema from a single region; I became relieved that I had not attempted to tackle “world cinema” as a whole.

In re-evaluating this course, I thought very carefully about what I wanted students to learn and how they could learn it. The course was designed as an upper-level undergraduate course in a literature department with a handful of graduate students; and while many students may have been cinema studies majors or minors, the course has no pre-requisite on it, meaning that any student could sign up if they were interested. In the original version of the course, no research component was required – but my redesign coincided with dissatisfaction amongst my colleagues concerning student experience in research as they approached a senior capstone project. Professors who taught the capstone course found that students struggled with jumping from a 7-10-page requirement to 35 pages of research-based material on a topic of their choice. The departmental undergraduate studies committee wondered if further research instruction could be incorporated more explicitly into the upper-level undergraduate courses – the level at which this “Cinemas of Latin America” course was taught — to create a scaffold so that the 35-page senior project would not be so onerous.

While I derived a certain joy from exposing students to the variety of Latin American film history, I was more interested in teaching a general methodological approach to national cinemas, one that students could apply on their own to any country. In some ways, this mimicked my own experience researching the cinema tradition of Peru. With only a handful of materials relating to Peruvian cinema, I turned instead to models emphasizing other national traditions – especially Núria Triana-Toribio’s work on Spanish cinema, Bernadette Plot’s work on interwar French cinema journals and a number of published materials on Cuba, Mexico, Chile and Brazil from this period. Peruvian history proved sufficiently different from its neighbors to change contextual cinematic paradigms: that the Peruvian dictatorship at the beginnings of the 1970s happened to be leftist rather than rightist contrasted strongly with the rest of Latin American rulers and, therefore, exerted a completely different effect on the local film industry. Whereas the Chilean government at the time either tortured or exiled their filmmakers, the Peruvian government established a stimulus program instead. Thus, much as national histories differ widely, so too must the methodological approaches to the material. In demonstrating the multiplicity of possible approaches, my goal was to also diminish any fears students might later have when they encountered their own research topics in capstone projects requiring something different from previous work.

My solution to this double-pronged problem – how to cover an ever-expanding amount of content, while desiring a more serious engagement with the research process – was solved simply by shifting part of the pedagogical approach back to student-centered learning. Instead of attempting to teach all of Latin American cinema, I changed the course title to “National Cinema Study” and then selected a single country – in my case, Mexico – as a case study whose films we watched and discussed in group screenings. After the first few weeks of theoretical considerations of the relationship between cinema and “the nation,” we started applying different methodological and historical approaches to the cinema writ large. Narrowing my focus in one way – that is, to a single nation – opened up the depth of the general approach and allowed us to question these methodologies more rigorously. After examining canonical texts such as Emilio Fernández’s María Candelaria (1943) and Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados (The Young and the Damned, 1950), I introduced the more popular lucha-libre film Santo y Blue Demon contra Drácula y el Hombre Lobo (Santo and Blue Demon vs. Dracula and the Wolf Man, Miguel Delgado, 1973). We also spent a class discussing how my desire to bring in Jorge Fons’ 1990 film Rojo Amanecer (Red Dawn, 1990) was thwarted simply by the absence of a subtitled version in the United States. Studying popular and exploitation-oriented texts allowed for us to question issues of canonicity.

Parallel to this exploration of Mexican cinema that we were doing as a class, I asked each student to choose a different national cinematic tradition and begin a substantial research process: first identifying that country’s historical tradition, then selecting and watching films, investigating secondary research, and then writing an essay of significant analytical complexity. This became the crucial component of the course: as the semester progressed, students realized that they were gaining expertise in another country’s cinematic tradition, but also that the research process itself for each country was unique. In the first year that I taught this course, many students picked more familiar traditions (France, Germany, Japan, etc.) – but one student chose her home country, Trinidad and Tobago. My role as instructor was to bring the differences within their research processes directly into class discussion: as such, the class quickly realized that even the process of finding films to select was going to vary widely. The French tradition is long, wide, and documented extensively – and thus, the difficulty for students became how to narrow such a tradition into something manageable; in the case of Trinidad, however, the student had to redefine what could be included as “cinema” to include some material made for television or claimed by other countries in the form of co-productions simply in order to reach the minimum number she needed to do the project. As the semester progressed, the course took a self-consciously meta-pedagogical tone, where questions concerning other cinematic traditions emerged within class discussion to emphasize the differences among students’ objects of study. The key component was to encourage these individual struggles to emerge within the general in-class discussions, using our shared experience with Mexican cinema as a grounding tool. For example, when discussing the Santo y Blue Demon film mentioned above, I asked students to look at their own list of films and question why they had or had not selected non-canonical films in their research process. As a result, some students took the initiative to investigate less traditional films and genres for their final projects, including one video essay on the poliziotteschi, low-budget Italian crime films from the 1970s inspired somewhat by the success of the spaghetti western.

What results from the dual approach toward national cinema, strangely enough, is a course on world cinema. Consider Dudley Andrew’s examination of his own pedagogical process of teaching an “atlas of world cinema”: “A course of study in world cinema … should instead be ready to travel more than to oversee, should put students inside unfamiliar conditions of viewing rather than bringing the unfamiliar handily to them. This is the pedagogical promise of World Cinema, a manner of treating foreign films more systematically, transcending the vagaries of taste; taking the measure of ‘the foreign’ in what is literally a freshly recognized global dimension” (19). As students share their struggles and discoveries throughout the semester, they start seeing the intersections and disjunctions that make up the real cacophony of global filmmaking. The raucous nature of “world cinema” is part of the problem with trying to teach it, for one needs to maintain a course narrative to deliver a course effectively. The case-study method embraces Maryellen Weiner’s ideas of “learning centered teaching” by having the students discuss their own research methodologies to demonstrate the very messy nature of “the world,” while at the same time providing a more grounding vision of “national cinema.” In the end, the course succeeds in conveying a fairly accurate portrayal of what Andrew calls the “complex ecology” of world cinema writ large.

Note: A link to the syllabus for this course may be found at the following url:

Works Cited 

Andrew, Dudley. “An Atlas of World Cinema.” In Remapping World Cinema: Identity, Culture and Politics in Film, edited by Stephanie Dennison and Song Hwee Lim, 19-29. London: Wallflower Press. 2006.

Weiner, Maryellen. Learner Centered Learning: 5 Key Changes to Practice. San Francisco: Josey Bass. 2002.

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