What Is World Cinema?: Structuring the Course

CJ_Final.inddCinema Journal Teaching Dossier
Vol. 2(1) Winter 2014
Michael Talbott

University of Vermont

While many colleges and universities offer world cinema courses, few seem to share a common understanding of the term. A world cinema course at one university includes both Hollywood and independent American filmmakers alongside directors from Lebanon and Nepal, while another situates world cinema as non-Hollywood, made both outside its physical borders and adopting “a different aesthetic model of filmmaking.” Instructors tasked with teaching world cinema are often faced with a considerable dilemma in simply determining the object of study.

This terminological confusion isn’t limited to academic institutions, but equally afflicts textbooks and other scholarly publications in the discipline. For example, The Oxford History of World Cinema, Aristides Gazetas’ An Introduction to World Cinema (2000), and the Intellect Directory of World Cinema Series use the term to describe the sum total of global film production, from its origins through the present, privileging Hollywood and European cinema but giving considerable attention to industries, films and filmmakers from other parts of the globe. For others, world cinema is placed in opposition to Hollywood cinema, including European cinemas alongside those historically described as Third World—the Tauris World Cinema Series, John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson’s World Cinema: Critical Approaches (2000), Stephanie Dennison and Song Hwee Lim’s Remapping World Cinema (2006), Paul Cooke’s World Cinema’s ‘Dialogues’ with Hollywood (2007), Kenneth R. Morefield’s Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema (2008), and Lúcia Nagib’s World Cinema and the Ethics of Realism (2011). Still others demonstrate a conception of world cinema as both non-Hollywood and non-European, though without making distinctions between popular and art cinemas or international and local circulation—see Shohini Chaudhuri’s Contemporary World Cinema (2005), the World Cinema section of Julie F. Codell’s Genre, Gender, Race and World Cinema (2007), and Natasa Ďurovičová and Kathleen E. Newman’s World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives (2010).  In S. Brent Plate’s Representing Religion in World Cinema: Filmmaking, Mythmaking, Culture Making (2003), world cinema comes from such places as India, Ghana, Cuba and Iran, but also from Maori filmmakers in New Zealand and African American independent filmmakers in the United States, implying that world cinema stands for anyone on the margins. Some texts seem altogether confused about the delimitation of their own world cinema corpus. The Screen reader Screening World Cinema (2006) alternates between both the non-Hollywood and non-Anglo-American understandings, while Traditions in World Cinema (2006) initially positions world cinema as “traditions of filmmaking that flourish beyond the ‘global’ Hollywood orbit,” yet goes on to include a chapter on “The ‘New’ American Cinema” of the 1970s.

Instead of selecting one of these publications as a course text and conforming the syllabus to the author’s conception of world cinema, this essay proposes structuring world cinema courses around the very issue of terminological instability and the lack of a clearly understood corpus, problematizing the term itself as a point of departure for student engagement. Simply put, adding a question mark turns world cinema from a fixed category into an open question. The introductions to a number of the aforementioned volumes on world cinema would serve as excellent reading assignments for the beginning of a semester or a quarter, as many of them acknowledge that in the face of competing understandings of world cinema, the term lacks specificity and thus usefulness, requiring extensive foregrounding of what exactly one means when referring to it.

Once students have become familiar with some of the contemporary academic debates about world cinema as a critical category, a turn towards historical examples of the term’s usage can help them understand its origins and transmutations. Drawing attention to early writings like Paul Rotha’s The Film Till Now: A Survey of World Cinema (1949), a foundational text of what David Bordwell has dubbed the Basic Story of film history, will demonstrate how primary status has been given to European, American and Soviet cinemas in charting the development of the medium. While Rotha’s book devotes a handful of pages to films from India and Japan, its scope positions its author at the center of world cinema, designating everything else as the periphery.

Discussion can frame work like Rotha’s as an example of historical Eurocentrism but also as emblematic of international film circulation of the period, in which a great number of films were exported from Hollywood, Europe and the U.S.S.R. to other parts of the globe, but few were allowed to travel in the opposite direction. Dudley Andrew’s excellent essay “Time Zones and Jetlag: The Flows and Phases of World Cinema” (2009) maps out five distinct phases of international film circulation, helping students to better grasp shifts in global film distribution among festivals, archives, and arthouses—and how these shifts have influenced the writing of world cinema history.

One’s conception of world cinema also changes based on global location and inclination. The World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival features “emerging filmmaking talents…from all corners of the globe,” as long as those corners aren’t in the U.S, though the U.K., Canada and Europe are acceptable. Canada’s Toronto International Film Festival’s Contemporary World Cinema section excludes both Canadian and Hollywood fare, but includes independent English-language films from the U.S. and U.K. The Cannes Film Festival describes the function of its World Cinema Pavilion/Pavillion les Cinémas du Monde as promoting “films from developing countries” while the Berlin Film Festival’s World Cinema Fund describes itself as “committed to the development and support of cinema in regions with weak film infrastructure.”

A productive discussion question that emphasizes how the category’s parameters shift with speaking/viewing position would ask students to compare and contrast definitions of world cinema from three distinct points around the globe—what might viewers or scholars in locations as different as Canada, Ghana, and Paraguay consider world cinema? This can also be structured as a research assignment which tasks them with locating concrete examples from differing contexts, such as program notes from a diverse selection of film festivals.

The most immediate way students engage with films is by watching and listening to them. In attempting to understand what world cinema is, it makes sense to devote a significant portion of the course to analyzing film style. Can students recognize stylistic continuities across a selection of neorealist-influenced world cinema from diverse regional, national and local contexts?

One productive approach is to situate neorealism and its diverse global iterations as a connective thread of world cinema, asking students to compare and contrast a work from the first phase of the Italian movement to any number of its geographically distant offspring. Once students have grasped the textual similarities, larger questions can be raised about the usefulness of working in a globally-identifiable film style: if neorealist style is already familiar to world cinema audiences, how is it advantageous for filmmakers working in Algeria, Argentina, or India to take up such established stylistic techniques in dealing with specificities of race, culture or politics unique to their stories. Depending on the historical parameters of the particular world cinema course, a similar approach can be employed with more contemporary world cinema. Distinct continuities will be easily recognizable to students between the minimalism of post-new wave European art cinema and its 21st century global progeny.

Often, world cinema syllabi read like a “greatest hits of foreign cinema.” The goal of the course proposed in this essay is not to advocate for or against exposing students to a selection of canonical films. Certainly some students become enthusiastic at the prospect of viewing films whose titles they recognize from awards lists and critical “best-of” lists and are more likely to engage with the course material than if faced with a screening list of obscure and difficult-to-pronounce titles. Whatever films an instructor selects to show, the approach should be to ask students to question its place within a world cinema continuum. How has the extensive global circulation of certain films by directors like Satyajit Ray or Akira Kurosawa helped them become classics of world cinema, and how did their styles grant them passport to travel?

Among other potentially productive issues to raise is the problem of popular and genre cinemas from around the world. Why are global art cinemas given a privileged position within studies of world cinema, while the far more widely viewed films of Bollywood or Nollywood are so often left out? Should we consider world cinema as a mode of film practice, linking an identifiable cinematic style to a decidedly non-Hollywood set of industrial conditions of production, distribution and exhibition? If this is the case, a potential unit of study for the latter portion of the semester could be the recent number of American films that seem to tread in world cinema waters—independently-produced art cinema-influenced works that deal with either marginalized individuals living in the United States (Chop Shop, Ballast, Sugar) or films shot in foreign languages and locations by American filmmakers (Munyurangabo, Sin Nombre, The Pool, Maria Full of Grace). Screen one or more of these films and provide students with paratextual material about their production, asking them to formulate and argue a perspective on this via a class discussion, online forum, or essay assignment.

Ultimately, any world cinema course should give equal weight to both the text and its historical conditions. One of the most significant advantages of structuring the course around questions of world cinema as a critical category is that it gives a continuous through-line to the course and avoids the fatigue that is often felt by students when jumping from national cinema to national cinema week after week, overwhelming them with contextual details. Asking them to ask what is world cinema, and why is it important to care, anchors any film, filmmaker or national cinema discussed to the speaking/viewing position of the student.

For a final assignment, students can be asked to write an essay in which they make a case for a particular conception of world cinema, noting that they must evaluate both the positive and negative registers of any definition. For those students who choose inclusiveness, push them to recognize how some aspects of global film will inevitably be marginalized. Other students will position world cinema as other—non-Hollywood, non-European/Anglo-American, or non-mainstream. If they see this as limiting, guide them towards an understanding of world cinema as empowering—a means of promoting and drawing attention to smaller budget films.

A world cinema course structured around principles of openness and exploration, possible even in moderately-sized undergraduate lecture classes, will reveal students who are eager to debate and who possess a discursive array of perspectives. Young students should be made aware that film studies is not a fixed discipline and that much history and terminology has yet to be sufficiently scrutinized, and instructors should remember not to simply teach from above, but to explore alongside.

Works Cited

Andrew, Dudley. “Time Zones and Jet Lags: The Flows and Phases of World Cinema.” In World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives, edited by Natasa Ďurovičová and Kathleen E. Newman. New York: Routledge, 2010.

Gazetas, Aristides. An Introduction to World Cinema. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2000.

Badley, Linda, R. Barton Palmer, and Steven Jay Schneider. Traditions in World Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2006.

Bordwell, David. On the History of Film Style. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1997.

Chaudhuri, Shohini. Contemporary World Cinema: Europe, the Middle East, East Asia and South Asia. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2005.

Codell, Julie F. Genre, Gender, Race, and World Cinema. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2007.

Cooke, Paul. World Cinema’s ‘Dialogues’ with Hollywood. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Dennison, Stephanie, and Song Hwee Lim, eds. Remapping World Cinema: Identity, Culture and Politics in Film. London: Wallflower Press, 2006.

Ďurovičová, Natasa, and Kathleen E. Newman. World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 2010.

Grant, Catherine, and Annette Kuhn. Screening World Cinema: A Screen Reader. London: Routledge, 2006.

Hill, John, and Pamela Church Gibson. World Cinema: Critical Approaches. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.

Morefield, Kenneth R. Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2008.

Nagib, Lúcia. World Cinema and the Ethics of Realism. New York, NY: Continuum International Pub. Group Inc, 2011.

Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. The Oxford History of World Cinema. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996.

Plate, S. Brent. Representing Religion in World Cinema: Filmmaking, Mythmaking, Culture Making. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Rotha, Paul. The Film Till Now: A Survey of World Cinema. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1949.


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