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March 12, 2008

Questions of Third Cinema edited by Jim Pines and Paul Willemen

thirdcinema.gifA collection of transcribed essays presented during the three-day conference organized by Jim Pines, Paul Willemen, and June Givanni as part of the 40th anniversary of the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 1986, Questions of Third Cinema examines the evolution, application, relevance, and continued challenges of Third Cinema in its manifestation, not only from the perspective of its critical origins in Latin America and its diverse incarnations in the native cinemas of African and Asian countries relegated to third world status, but also in its representations of the Other within the film (sub)culture of developed nations, acting in opposition to the imperialist, bourgeois ideals of a dominant 'first cinema' as well as the abstraction - and egoism - of a consciously cerebral 'second cinema'. A cinematic call to arms taken from Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino's seminal article, Towards a Third Cinema, Third Cinema's identification lies in its aesthetic of unfinished research that is deeply rooted within the reality and history of a dominated society, transcending class divisions to collectively express a culture's inherent problems of representation, translation, mediation, and intervention.

In this respect, Third Cinema functions, not only as a simple reflection of 'alternative history' from an abrogated culture, but also as a chronicle - and indictment - of this process of systematic erasure. In the essay, The Third Cinema Question: Notes and Reflections, Paul Willemen cites this prevailing sense of indigenous culture and intrinsic activism (especially from the perspective of a dysfunctional, hybridized culture caused by colonial imposition) that characterize the films of Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Ousmane Sembene, and Ritwik Ghatak as cornerstones of Third Cinema's cross-cultural imperative:

Each of them refused to oppose a simplistic notion of national identity or of cultural authenticity to the values of colonial or imperial predators. Instead, they started from a recognition of the many-layeredness of their own cultural-historical formations, with each layer being shaped by complex connections between intra- and inter-national forces and traditions. In this way, the three cited filmmakers exemplify a way of inhabiting one's culture which is neither myopically nationalist no evasively cosmopolitan. Their film work is not particularly exemplary in the sense of displaying stylistically innovative devices to be imitated by others who wish to avoid appearing outdated. On the contrary, it is their way of inhabiting their cultures, their grasp of the relations between the cultural and the social, which founded the search for a cinematic discourse able to convey their sense of a 'diagnostic understanding' (to borrow a happy phrase from Raymond Williams) of the situation in which they work and to which their work is primarily addressed.

In essence, if a dominated society is to remain relevant, its identity cannot solely be rooted in imitation, but rather, reconstituted as a confluence of both native and assimilated cultures that cannot be inhabited by a simple process of translation. This fundamental problem forms the essential question in Trinh T. Minh-ha's essay, Outside In Inside Out, examining the implicitly imposed limitations on native filmmakers that, by extrapolation, endows a certain omniscience - and consequently, omnipotence - on the part of Euro-American filmmakers to serve as figurative, anointed interpreters of other cultures. For Trinh, this paradigm not only reflects the imbalance of power between Insider and Outsider, but also implicitly reinforces mutually exclusive, binary modes of representation:

That a white person makes a film on the Goba of the Zambezi or on the Tasaday in the Philippine rain forest seems hardly surprising to anyone, but that a Third World member makes a film on other Third World peoples never fails to appear questionable to many ...The marriage is not consumable, for the pair is no longer 'outside-inside' (objective versus subjective), but something between 'inside-inside' (subjective in what is already designated as subjective) and 'outside-outside' (objective in what is already claimed as objective) ...Any attempts at blurring the dividing line between outsider and insider would justifiably provoke anxiety, if not anger. Territorial rights are not being respected here.

Homi K. Bhabha similarly examines the fallacy of cultural (mis)identification with the Other in the essay, The Commitment to Theory, suggesting instead that the goal of Third Cinema is to facilitate cultural negotiation rather than negation through the co-occupation of what the author defines as Third Space, the "split space of enunciation [that] may open the way to conceptualizing an international culture, based not on exoticism or multiculturalism of the diversity of cultures, but on the inscription and articulation of culture's hybridity".

Teshome H. Gabriel further explores the idea of Third Cinema as other history in the essay, Third Cinema as Guardian of Popular Memory: Towards a Third Aesthetics, illustrating its genesis in folkloric tradition, in essence, a medium for conveying history through popular - though not necessarily "official" - memory:

Another form of Third Cinema narrative - the autobiographical narrative - illustrates this point. Here I do not mean autobiography in its usual Western sense of a narrative by and about a single subject. Rather, I am speaking of a multi-generational and trans-individual autobiography where the collective subject is the focus. A critical scrutiny of this extended sense of autobiography (perhaps hetero-biography) is more of an expression of shared experience; it is a mark of solidarity with people's lives and struggles.

This symbiotic relationship between Third Cinema and its cultural rooting is also reflected in Charles Burnett's essay, Inner City Blues, who argues that the integrity of filmmaking can only be preserved through personal investment within - and by - the community rather than in the bankrolling (and artistic compromises) of commercial studios:

The commercial film is largely responsible for affecting how one views the world. It reduced the world to one dimension, rendering taboos to superstition, concentrated on the ugly, creating a passion for violence and reflecting racial stereotypes, instilling self-hate, creating confusion rather than offering clarity: to sum it up, it was demoralizing. It took years for commercial films to help condition society on how it should respond to reality. In the later films that strove for a reality, the element of redemption disappeared, and as a consequence, the need for a moral position was no longer relevant. There was no longer a crossroads for us to face and to offer meaning to our transgressions.

...Any other art form celebrates life, the beautiful, the ideal, and has a progressive effect, except American cinema - The situation is such that one is always asked to compromise one's integrity, and if the socially oriented film is finally made, its showing will generally be limited and the very ones that it is made for and about will probably never see it. To make filmmaking viable you need the support of the community; you have to become part of its agenda, an aspect of its survival.

The moral trauma and violence of cultural imperialism is eloquently articulated in Haile Gerima's impassioned essay, Triangular Cinema, Breaking Toys, and Dinknesh vs. Lucy. Contrasting the lavish construction of Hollywood films (and manufactured film stars) to the artisanal quality of Third World cinema, Gerima rejects the temptation to imitate the Hollywood model, citing Hegel's comment that "the most important act a child can engage in is the breaking of his/her toys" as a metaphor for the unattainable pursuit of false idols. Moreover, with the increasing international popularity of Third World cinema, Gerima insightfully cautions against its unwitting distortion as a cultural reinforcement of stereotypes and exotization.

While we should be pleased with the growing interest shown by the progressive, international community in our cinema movement, we need to be concerned with the distribution and exhibition aspects of our creative outputs. We need to restore dignity to and for our films, we have to fight against the free exhibition of our culture. We must receive economic as well as political return for our labor, as part and parcel of our struggle for legitimate cinema. This will prevent the tendency to relegate our culture to the world of the exotic...

In the coming years, Third World cinema has a two-pronged responsibility: 1) to be an active catalyst in instigating the revolutionary uplifting of the masses of Third World from the gutter to the level of equal partnership - the birthright of all human beings - and to struggle to bring about the total removal of the above- and below-the-line distinctions of existence; and 2) to be a catalyst, directly or indirectly, in demystifying the superiority of the developed countries. This demystification can only take place through the decoding of the deemed superiority of the West. This will create some form of parity that will contribute to a better climate and democratic existence for all human beings. In other words, our cultural contribution to the West will be to bring them a little bit down to the human orbit.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 12, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Film Related Reading

March 4, 2008

Un Secret, 2007

secret.gifIn an early episode in the film, a bookish, teenaged François Grimbert (Quentin Dubuis) sits in a classroom intently watching the archival footage of the mass collection and burial of concentration camp victims during the Holocaust, before flying into an inconsolable rage over a student's racially insensitive comments. For François, the sobering images of emaciated, broken bodies not only raises the specter of his suppressed identity after his parents Anglicized their surname and had him baptized as a Catholic in the aftermath of their untold experience during the war, but also reminds him of his own physical frailty. The son of athletic parents, a ruggedly handsome gymnast and haberdasher named Maxime (Patrick Bruel) and his beautiful, fashion model wife, Tania (Cécile De France), François's self-consciousness over his own physicality has plagued him since childhood, even imagining that he had an athletic, alter-ego brother who could climb the ropes and execute perfectly controlled turns on the high bar that he could not perform for his demanding father. Even the idea of his parents humoring his fanciful whims for an imaginary brother would prove to be elusive, answered instead with almost desperate re-assertion of their singular existence. It is a gnawing sense of insecurity over his parents' evasive silence that would continue to consume him until one day when the family's longtime friend and neighbor, Louise (Julie Depardieu) decides to tell François the story of his parents' entangled destiny of unreconciled ghosts and memories in the shadows of occupied France. Adapted from the novel Memory (Secret) by Philippe Grimbert, Claude Miller's Un Secret is an articulate and well-rendered, if occasionally belabored portrait of guilt, transference, and survival. Framed within the context of the now grown François's (Mathieu Amalric) attempts to find his missing elderly father following the accidental death of the family dog, his search also becomes a metaphoric quest for identity and connection within the silence of a traumatic and dislocated history (a haunted persistence that also evokes integral, recurring themes in Chantal Akerman's cinema).

Posted by acquarello on Mar 04, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

Ain't Scared, 2007

aint_scared.gifDuring the Q&A for Ain't Scared (Regarde-moi), Audrey Estrougo remarked that one of her motivations for making the film was to create a more authentic portrait of les cités - the low income housing neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city - that had become an all too convenient political target for all the social ills of France by then right wing candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy during the presidential election, especially in the aftermath of the 2005 civil unrest. Within this context, it should come as no surprise that Estrougo finds certain kinship with the films of Spike Lee in capturing the sense of entrapment, poverty, despair, and frustration that lead to these eruptions of violence. Composed as a two-part chronicle (with epilogue) of a day in the life of residents at a housing project - initially, from the perspective of the young men, then subsequently, from the young women in the neighborhood - Estrougo proposes that violence and social inequality are not overtly issues of racism, but rather, a broader symptom of underprivilege and disenfranchisement. Indeed, Estrougo subverts this convenient generalization in the early establishing shot of Yannick (Paco Boublard) receiving money inside a parked car before trying to catch a glimpse of his ex-girlfriend, Melissa (Djena Tsimba), his friend Jo (Terry Nimajimbe), who has been training for his debut with a professional soccer league, and even in the image of a bare-chested Mouss (Oumar Diaw) practicing an assortment of romantic overtures in front of a mirror that would later prove to actually succeed in seducing his girlfriend, Daphné (Salomé Stévenin). In contrast, the plight of the women is harsher and more restrictive: a reality that is foreshadowed in the film's black screen opening sequence as two women scandalously argue over the stealing of a lover (later identified as Melissa's mother and her neighbor) that ends with the slamming of a door, that is subsequently mirrored in the escalating rivalry between Jo's girlfriend, Julie (Emilie de Preissac) and Mouss's younger sister, Fatima (Eye Haidara) that dominates the second half of the film. Paradoxically, it is through this sobering glimpse of petty territoriality and jealousy that Estrougo not only reinforces the idea of violence as an integral reflection of poverty, dispossession, and exclusion, but also offers a semblance of hope and solidarity.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 04, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

March 3, 2008

Love Songs, 2007

love_songs.gifChristophe Honoré's idiosyncratic concoction of irreverent humor, subverted expectation, romanticism, and affectionate homage falls elegantly and poignantly into place in Love Songs (Les Chansons d'amour): a lyrical, immediately engaging, yet substantive thirteen song musical presented in three chapters, each bearing a title from the three parts of Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Departure, Absence, and Return). The unexpected presentation of the film's opening credit sequence - citing only the surnames of the actors and production crew - sets the tone for Honoré's whimsical exploration of loss, incompleteness, and emotional fracture. Ostensibly a film on the amorous (mis)adventures of indecisive, twenty-something Parisian copy writer, Ismaël (Louis Garrel) who, as the film begins, has embarked on a ménage à trois with the reluctant consent of his devoted girlfriend, Julie (Ludivine Sangnier) and his co-worker Alice (Clotilde Hesme), the film similarly sweeps through the variegated arcs of Demy's quintessential film as it traces the complex emotional trajectory of loss, grief, survival, and healing following an unexpected tragedy. However, Honoré's rumination on lost love is far from a derivative reconstitution, but rather, a contemporary examination of the malleability - and interchangeability - of modern identity. Featuring original songs by collaborator and friend Alex Beaupain (whose experienced loss of a mutual friend served as the inspiration for the film's narrative) and a strong ensemble cast who perform the musical numbers in their own unadulterated voices - including Brigitte Roüan in the role of Julie's mother, Chiara Mastroianni as Julie's sister Jeanne, and Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet as the idealistic Breton student, Erwann - Love Songs delightfully (and unabashedly) expresses the poetry in the quotidian in all its intoxicating, dislocated presence and bittersweet, lingering memory.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 03, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

La Question humaine, 2007

question.gifIn an interstitial episode the occurs halfway through Nicolas Klotz's La Question humaine (Heartbeat Detector), a group of diners at a low rent café are racially profiled and rounded up by the police for a random check of identification papers, the first among them, Papi (Adama Doumbia), the African immigrant whose wife, Blandine (Noëlla Mossaba) was injured during deportation in Klotz's previous film, La Blessure. It is a jarring contrast from the world of indulgence, privilege, ivy league education, and corporate grooming that would define the characters in La Question humaine, the final installment in what Klotz would describe during the film's introductory remarks as the Trilogy of Modern Times (along with Paria and La Blessure), in tribute to Charles Chaplin: an interrogation of society's conscience - its humanity - at the beginning of the 21st century, a century after the Industrial Revolution. Adapted from the novel by Belgian author François Emmanuel, the film is set within the fictitious global conglomerate called SC Farb, a thinly veiled reference to the notorious, Nazi-era, German chemical company IG Farben whose dismantled and reacquired industries include the French multinational pharmaceutical corporation Aventis (which subsequently merged into the Sanofi-Aventis that is headquartered in Paris). Ostensibly centered on corporate psychologist and executive trainer, Simon Kessler's (Mathieu Amalric) attempts to perform a covert evaluation of the CEO, Mathias Jüst's (Michael Lonsdale) mental health at the request of a high-ranking executive, Karl Rose (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) following a series of erratic behaviors and questionable actions, the film chronicles Kessler's own moral awakening after gaining Jüst's trust by drawing on the memory of a company quartet that he had formed years earlier with Rose, his then-mistress Lynn Sanderson (Valérie Dréville), and former employee Arie Neumann (Lou Castel), and uncovers the closely guarded secrets that would bind the amateur musicians together in the buried knowledge of a shameful collective history. Framed as a mystery and corporate intrigue film, La Question humaine is a scathing and unflinching indictment of the societal toll of corporate economics, where efficiency, optimization, productivity, and profitability are used as evasive euphemisms for inhumanity, exploitation, and social genocide. Klotz uses cold tones, dark contrast palettes, and institutional spaces that figuratively mirror the grey souls of corporate white-washing and amnesia, where new generations (a sentiment acutely embodied in the incorporation of New Order music during a rave party attended by newly recruited employees) systematically collude to bury the transgressions of their forefathers in order to avoid confronting the past and consequently deflect their own personal accountability and sense of moral restitution.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 03, 2008 | | Comments (13) | Filed under 2008, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

Let's Dance, 2007

dance.gifNoémie Lvovsky returns to the idiosyncratic, subtly modulated multigenerational human comedy of Les Sentiments with a more diluted, but still insightfully rendered examination of aging, identity, and the changing role between parent and child in Let's Dance (Fait que ça danse!). Lvovsky's affectionate portrait centers on the sprightly, Holocaust survivor Salomon Bellinsky (Jean-Pierre Marielle) who, as he nears his eightieth birthday, has been spending his days dodging funeral obligations of friends and fellow survivors, taking tap dancing lessons to emulate his favorite actor, Fred Astaire, arguing with insurance agents who are quick to reject his application on the sole basis of age, and paying cordial visits to his willfully independent, estranged wife Geneviève (Bulle Ogier) who has been reduced to increasing financial straits after struggling with the effects of Alzheimer's disease for years, attended to her devoted caregiver, Mootoosamy (Bakary Sangaré). Faced with the reality that his wife is now a virtual stranger in the final stages of her degenerative illness, and relegated to obligatory, quick checkup visits from his preoccupied daughter, Sarah (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), Salomon turns to the personal ads to find companionship and meets the charming, if insecure Violette (Sabine Azéma), where soon, his own fears of an uncertain future begin to take their toll on his relationships with the people around him. As in Les Sentiments, Lvovsky frames the parallel lives among the disparate generations as emotional intersections that reveal the fundamental human desire to remain vital, useful, and relevant.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 03, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Rendez-vous with French Cinema