Teaching Non-Western Cinemas in a Multiracial, Developing World Context, or What to Do When Your Students Are “the World”

CJ_Final.indd Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier
 Vol. 2(1) Winter 2014
 Christopher Meir
 University of the West Indies, St. Augustine


Most pedagogy of non-western cinemas such as those of Asia, Africa and South America assumes certain distances between students and the subject matter of the films screened in class to be the most difficult problem to overcome. These distances are innumerable, ranging from the obvious cultural and linguistic disparities between students and characters in films, to questions of race and class. These latter issues are often the most difficult to discuss given the sensitivities that exist on most college campuses where race and class can be difficult subjects to broach at the best of times; yet if most instructors are completely frank, they will acknowledge that many problems stem from the root cause of getting primarily white students from wealthy, developed nations to relate to films about people of color from developing nations. But what, if anything, is different when instructors are faced with a different kind of student body, one that shares more in common with the characters and filmmakers they are studying than that which would be found in the typical North American or European classroom?

To answer this question, I will draw on my own experiences and those of my colleagues teaching and designing courses at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine in the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Trinidad and Tobago and the wider Anglophone Caribbean (UWI’s ostensible catchment area) are multiracial societies in which Caucasian peoples are a small minority, less than 1% of the population for instance in Trinidad and Tobago. The population of T&T is approximately 40% of African descent and 40% of South Asian (Indian) descent, with substantial minority populations of East Asians, Middle Easterners, South Americans and people from multiracial backgrounds making up the rest of the population. Such racial and ethnic diversity has fundamental implications for the ways in which teaching film studies is done; questions about racial representation, for example, regularly break out during discussions of films like Citizen Kane, questions that I had never encountered in North American or European classrooms (previous to working at UWI, I studied in the US, Canada and the UK and taught in the UK.) These dynamics also require decisions that recenter the traditionally American/Eurocentric cinematic canon at both the macro/curricular and micro/course design levels.

Our program takes the view that ideological problems of cultural imperialism and the attendant racial and cultural self-alienation of non-white peoples, topics somewhat passé in academic circles, are very much still pressing issues for the Caribbean. Here the airwaves and cinemas are nearly completely overrun with American content,[i] with little else besides the occasional “Bollywood” film (a form of filmmaking that has its own ideological and artistic problems) showing up in the local cinemas. This lack of diversity at the level of distribution creates a number of problems for film culture in the region, problems that are both ideological and artistic in nature. Not only is it ideologically detrimental for students to see white Americans (or light-skinned, upper-class Indians) as icons of aspiration but, given that we are primarily a production-driven program, it is also one that hinders their artistic endeavors as special effects-laden blockbusters are simply not a form that Caribbean filmmakers can emulate.

It was thus with a mixed cultural and pragmatic agenda in mind that at one point we shifted the curriculum away from courses on aesthetic theory which emphasized the intellectual and artistic accomplishments of mainly European filmmakers and thinkers towards courses that dealt explicitly with filmmaking from non-western cinemas. [ii] In so doing we decided against the homogenizing tendency inherent in the design of omnibus “world cinema” courses. Instead we emphasize national and regional specificity by including courses which are concerned with the cinemas of Africa, India and Latin America as well as a number of courses on Caribbean Cinema. Such courses allow for greater attention and more thorough treatment of specific cinemas than would be possible in a “world cinema” survey course while still giving students some idea of the larger trends shaping individual works.

A related strategy is to utilize non-western films within courses which are not specifically concerned with national and regional cinemas. By using films such as Tsotsi (Gavin Hood, 2005) to illustrate music and narration in our introductory film analysis course or giving special attention to filmmakers such as Satyajit Ray and Ousmane Sembene in the first-year history survey course, we hope to give students a broader perspective on the basic issues such as film interpretation and the historical development of the medium. Such a strategy also seeks to remind students that Hollywood and European films are not necessarily “the norm,” a powerful status often implicitly and explicitly conferred upon them in much teaching of “the basics.” This is not to say the traditional canon is ignored. The Bicycle Thieves and The 400 Blows are taught in history classes along with the aforementioned Kane which is a key teaching text for our required course on film analysis.  But we also insist on inscribing Pather Panchali, Xala, and City of God into those same “basic” canons. Validating non-western cinemas in this way helps to make film history more relatable to students who come to see their own races and ethnicities on screen in “great” films. Crucially, they can also learn from the aesthetic strategies these filmmakers have developed in response to their own social and political contexts, contexts that often feature problems similar to the Caribbean’s. Xala’s satire of postcolonial hypocrisy and corruption, to give just one example, always draws laughs from Caribbean students as they marvel at Sembene’s take on problems that are also endemic to their own region. Such relevance at the thematic level is bolstered by the inspiration that students can take from the heroic efforts of filmmakers like Ray who overcame seemingly insurmountable odds to make Pather Panchali. Unsurprisingly students at UWI can take the most direct inspiration from and relate most palpably to films shown in our courses on Caribbean cinema, films which, given the distribution problems discussed above, seldom make it to local screens.

While racial, political and cultural affinities may offer Caribbean students ways into films that their counterparts in other parts of the world may not share, at the same time other factors make it difficult to teach such films. Some of these are specific to our students. Primary amongst these is a sense of cultural and racial inferiority that permeates the Caribbean just as it does many postcolonial societies. “Foreign is better” is a maxim that runs deep in the region, and Caribbean films in particular are the objects of severe prejudice, making it difficult to encourage student viewing, to the extent that our lower level Caribbean Cinema course is compulsory as much for practical reasons (i.e. to keep the numbers up) as it is for the idealistic ones I have been discussing. Similarly, popular attitudes towards Africa and to a lesser extent India – the two largest “heritage” sites for Trinidad and Tobago – tend to see them as backwaters from which diasporic peoples were fortunate to escape. The local love-hate relationship with popular cinematic forms from India and Nigeria is the exception that proves this rule. Although very popular with the general public, both “Nollywood” and “Bollywood” are often enjoyed ironically, especially by the younger generations, and students scoff at the idea that such films can be viewed as having artistic or cultural importance (as do administrators at times!).

The impulse to laugh at Hindi films in particular is something that Caribbean students share with their North American and European counterparts, just as all tend to resist the more self-consciously “serious” films of the Indian, African and Latin American art cinema. Unnecessarily “depressing” and/or “disturbing” is a complaint that students regularly lodge against the works of people like Ray, Sembene,[iii] or Nelson Pereira dos Santos. Overcoming this attitude is, of course, one of the biggest challenges faced by instructors of non-western cinemas, but the problem is slightly different in the Caribbean context. Besides the unfamiliarity with non-western artistic strategies that our students share with their counterparts in North America and Europe, they often relate too much to the content of the films rather than too little, which is often the case in developed nations. While contemporary Trinidad knows nothing of the hardships depicted in Vidas Secas or the Apu trilogy, the general themes of economic exploitation, underdevelopment, and relative privation are all close to the surface. Students thus regularly speak of favoring either escapism from such problems – favoring Hindi cinema over Ray, for example – or aestheticizing them, in essence opting for the sentimental tone of Central Station or the sensationalized violence of Elite Squad over the grim and austere realism of Vidas Secas. Such stylistic preferences mean that teaching more contemporary work is often an easier sell, especially given the trend in the international art circuit towards mixing genre cinema and art cinema aesthetics. This emphasis is made all the more compelling by our need to keep filmmaking students abreast of the latest artistic trends on the world scene.

At a practical level, our teaching of non-western cinemas tends to take advantage of digital technologies (in particular the trend towards uploading subtitled films, even recent ones, to YouTube) to assist in accessing films, but by and large we face the same problems of availability that academics around the world face. Ironically, these are most pronounced in the case of Caribbean cinema, where the distribution infrastructure is such that personal relationships between the staff and filmmakers sometimes determine which films are available for teaching. Assigned texts for reading tend to favor either wholly “post-Fordist” approaches, by which I mean designing coursepacks of specially selected articles (and distributing them in digital versions on course portals) or use of books such as those in Wallflower’s 24 Frames series, which are organized around case studies of individual films. There is nothing particularly Caribbean about such a decision; instead this is usually seen as a necessity in a production-oriented department where students are more interested in learning about specific films rather than larger theoretical or historical paradigms. It is not that such paradigms are ignored, but instead that we tend to try to organize discussions around case studies of individual films, discussions which in the best cases move towards elucidating larger issues.

Teaching non-western cinemas in the Caribbean is thus a pedagogical enterprise that is both specific to the region itself but also shaped by factors that are universal to teaching film studies. Just as I hope students walk away from a course on a non-western cinema with an appreciation of what is both specific and universal about any given film, so too do I hope readers of this piece will have gained a similar appreciation of our situation and their own. What, if anything, can be learned from the UWI Film Program’s approach to non-western cinemas that can be useful to those teaching in North America and Europe? Some of the transferable lessons from our experience would begin with the need to conceive of film studies education as a tool with which to diversify students’ film consumption and by extension their understanding of the medium. Caribbean students are not alone in being inundated with Hollywood products even if students elsewhere do have access to alternatives to that model. Steps in this direction would include the need to be conscious of what we are implicitly teaching as the “norm” in individual classes and in terms of larger curricular design. A related point is that “world cinema” courses need to be handled with care so as to not implicitly ghettoize everything that isn’t European or American into a single, limited category. Finally, I would suggest that even individual non-western cinemas should not be treated monolithically by focusing exclusively on art cinema traditions. The popular traditions and “crossover” works of any nation/region can be just as engaging and challenging to students and contribute to the project of broadening their horizons, cinematic and otherwise.


1 No hard data exists on film release patterns in the Anglophone Caribbean at large or Trinidad in particular, but the dominance of American and to a far lesser extent Indian popular cinema in the region has been documented in works such as Keith Q. Warner’s On Location: Cinema and Film in the Anglophone Caribbean (London: Macmillan Education, 2000), pp. 1-38.

2 I have written at greater length about the necessity of teaching non-western cinemas in the Caribbean and the aforementioned curricular overhaul in my chapter “Building Film Culture in the Anglophone Caribbean: Film Education at the University of the West Indies” in Mette Hjort (ed.), The Education of the Filmmaker in Africa, the Middle East and the Americas, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), pp. 203-219.

3 Though students tend to laugh through Xala, they are also sometimes horrified by the film’s polemically grotesque ending in which a corrupt official is spat upon by the poor masses he has exploited.






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