Questions of Third Cinema, edited by Jim Pines and Paul Willemen

A 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.

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