Diasporic CinemaDIASPORIC FORMATIONS IN CINEMA
The word "diaspora" is derived from the Greek word diasperien. It denotes the dispersion of a population group or community of people from their country of birth or origin. Overseas diasporas or transnational communities are created by international migration, forced or voluntary, and are motivated by economic, political, and colonial factors. During classical antiquity, "diaspora" referred to the exodus and exile of the Jews from Palestine. Later historical references to "diaspora" are associated with the slave trade and forced migration of West Africans to the "New World" in the sixteenth century. Twentieth-century formations include the Palestinian and Armenian diasporas. More recent diasporas originate from the Caribbean, Latin America, South and East Asia, and Central Europe. As a subject area and critical category of study, diaspora has become a theoretical tool in film studies, ethnic studies, and cultural studies, among other fields, and resonates in debates and critiques of migration, identity, nationalism, transnationality, and exile.
The second half of the twentieth century, referred to by some demographers as "the century of migration," is distinguished by the magnitude, direction, and composition of international migration, with women now constituting nearly 50 percent of international migrants. Several factors have accelerated the movement of people across borders: globalizing economic processes linked to the internationalization of capital and the labor market, the cumulative effects of political instability caused by ethnic strife and civil wars, population pressures, environmental degradation, human rights violations, and the decline of transportation costs. Taken together, these factors, along with worsening poverty that compounds the already vast inequalities among the world's 6.4 billion population, account for the "global migration crisis" at the beginning of the twenty-first century. It has affected an estimated 175 million people, who now reside outside their country of origin and whose destination increasingly is North America, Asia, and Western Europe. Globalization and geopolitics, along with the rise of transnational media, accelerate diasporic formations. Constituting "new" and hybrid ethnicities, diasporas disrupt the cultural and social practices of the societies they inhabit. They also contest accepted ideas about Western modernity and nationhood, especially racialized constructions related to citizenship.
The dislocating effects of globalization, migrating cultures, and postcoloniality form the subtext of diasporic cinema. Thus this category of film is neither linguistically nor culturally monolithic. A number of scholars have discussed diasporic and exilic films as an international genre or movement consistent with the world today. Hamid Naficy outlines vital and nuanced distinctions between "diasporic," "exilic," and "postcolonial ethnic and identity" filmmakers, who collectively comprise "accented cinema" and, as he suggests, are in conversation with dominant and alternative cinemas.
However differentiated, though, diasporic films and other types of "accented" films share similar concerns, characteristics, and production practices. In culturally diverse and often compelling narratives and styles, they address the paradoxes of exile and the negotiation of difference and belonging in indifferent and frequently xenophobic communities and nation-states. Moreover, diasporic films, such as Vivre au paradis (Living in Paradise, 1998), set in France during the last years of the Algerian war of independence (1954–62), and Hop (2002), in which an innocent boy finds himself in trouble and separated from his father, foreground the struggle for recognition, community, and citizenship. As is evident in Salut cousin! (Hey Cousin!, 1996), about two
b. Algiers, Algeria, 6 October 1944
The Algerian director and writer Merzak Allouache consistently explores the displacement of exile and marginality of North Africans living in France and its former colony, Algeria. After studying at France's renowned film school, École Nationale Supérieure des Métiers de L'image et du Son, as well as graduating from Algeria's short-lived film school, Allouache worked in French television. His first feature film, Omar Gatlato (1976), presents in documentary style an exposé of Algerian males who fear intimacy with women as much as alienation from male peers. The title is derived from the phrase gatlato alrujula, roughly "a machismo that kills," and refers to the social practices that exacerbate male insecurity. The focus on a dynamic urban milieu and its youth—its street slang, rituals, and passion for popular culture—is a theme that runs through many of Allouache's films.
Bab El-Oued City (1994) earned him international acclaim and put him in peril in Algeria. Its title refers to a working-class district of Algiers where Allouache grew up and which is a site of intense unrest. Allouache updates his focus on urban youth who, once struggling with a nation in the making, are now experiencing an increasing spiral of violence. It tells the story of an ordinary baker who flees for his life after impulsively ripping out a rooftop loudspeaker that incessantly broadcasts propaganda by religious activists. A warning about the dangers of replacing colonial despotism with theocratic authoritarianism, the film won the International Film Critics prize in the Un Certain Regard category at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival and that year's grand prize at the Arab Film Festival. In Algeria, Allouache faced enough political pressure to prompt his departure.
Once in exile, Allouache used a comedic frame for Salut cousin! (1996), a diasporic and exilic film that features the related ordeals of two cousins from Algeria who navigate French society in different ways. Allouache laces the cousins' stories with enough empathy and sense of whimsy to temper what some call his customary fatalism. Allouache expanded his take on gender and diaspora in L'Autre Monde (The Other World, 2001), which traces the arduous journey of a woman and her fiancé, both born in France to Algerian immigrants, who travel to Algeria to experience a country they only previously "imagined." After her fiancé—torn between his birthplace and his ancestral homeland—leaves for Algeria to join the military, the young woman dons a veil and follows, facing danger and further disorientation related to her own conflicting loyalties.
This film, by a director who humanizes characters ordinarily understood through the lens of prejudice, highlights the contradictory sources of their vulnerability and survivability. Allouache has repeated this message in films that span nearly two decades, and which similarly forced him to straddle two nations with a shared, violent history as the colonizer and the colonized. His commitment to give voice to the disempowered is what gives his films their greatest weight.
Omar Gatlato (1976), Un amour à Paris (A love in Paris, 1987), L'Après-Octobre (Following October, 1989), Bab El-Oued City (1994), Salut cousin! (Hey Cousin!, 1996), L'Amour est à Réinventer (Love Reinvented, segment "Dans la décapotable," 1996), Alger-Beyrouth: Pour mémoire (Algiers-Beirut: A Souvenir, 1998), L'Autre Monde (The Other World, 2001), Chouchou (2003)
Allouache, Merzak. Bab El-Oued: A Novel. Boulder, CO: L. Rienner, 1997.
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Michael T. Martin
Algerian cousins in racially tense Paris, and Gegen die Wand (Head-On, 2004), which centers on a marriage of convenience between two German Turks, they also explore the ambivalence and contingency of diasporic identities. These films, and others such as Heremakono (Waiting for Happiness, 2002) and Le Grand voyage (2004), suggest a counterpoint to the dislocating experience of global migrations, using journey narratives to interrogate the "homeless subject."
Since the 1980s, alongside the emergence of postcolonial diasporic filmmaking, new and more complex accounts of the "national" and "national cinema" have evolved largely in response to the ascendance of transnational media and other supranational entities (multinational corporations) under global capitalism. As a critical category, national cinema presents problems: one can no longer define national cinema in terms of where films are produced and by whom, or by a comparative approach that differentiates between national cinemas. Diasporic cinema, like diasporas, problematizes national identity and the nation as an imagined and bounded territorial space. For example, in Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987), the characters' identities are framed by London's cosmopolitanism, whereas in Pièces d'identités (Pieces of Identity, 1998), they are informed by a monolithic African (or continental) affiliation along with tribal distinctions.
Diaspora cinema, paradoxically, comprises the global as a distinctive transnational style, as well as the local to reflect some manner of specificity. Diasporic cinema's political project expresses a transcendent realism, in which "home truths" about the social experience of postcoloniality are rendered transparent. An apt example is Drachenfutter (Dragon Chow, 1987), in which two displaced refugees—one Pakistani, the other Chinese—start a restaurant, whose viability is eventually thwarted by the insensitive immigration policies of their host country of West Germany. This feature also corresponds to and resonates with a growing corpus of films that address the fracture sociale, especially in First World societies, in which the gendered and marginalized lives of the underclass and growing economic disparities between social classes are explored. Examples include La Vie rêvée des anges (The Dreamlife of Angels, 1998) and Rosetta (1999). Diasporic cinema, however, is less schematic, theorized, and committed to being oppositional as a collective project than its precursor, the 1960s cinema of political engagement. Nevertheless, it heralds a renewed preoccupation with the global and historical affairs of the contemporary period.
As South and East Asian, African, and Caribbean diasporas disrupt the prevailing Christian and racialized delineation of Europe, nation-states in the European Union are undergoing economic and political integration and dramatic demographic changes. Since the 1980s filmmakers, especially diasporic and exilic ones, have explored the émigré experience with increasing frequency and in greater depth. Accented cinema formations have developed in Britain (black and Asian film and video collectives), in the United States (Iranian, African American, and Asian American), and, to a lesser extent, in Canada (South Asian).
Among filmmakers who reside in France, a cine beur, or beur cinemas, has evolved, exploring the preoccupations and concerns of transnational migrant communities that have settled there. The word beur is French slang for "Arab" and signifies the ambivalence associated with bicultural identity despite French nationality. It also signifies the distinction and tension between French of Maghreb ancestry and their North African immigrant parents. Les beurs constitute a distinctive bicultural group. As the children of North African immigrants from Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco (the Maghreb), concentrated particularly in the banlieues (housing projects on the peripheries of French cities), la génération beur attained prominence during the late 1970s amid racial tension, the rise of extreme right-wing movements (such as the Front National), and national debates about immigration, integration, and assimilation in France.
Beur cinema, which has a kinship with banlieue and "hip hop" cinemas, is part of a larger beur artistic tradition and social movement in music, art, photography, theater, and literature. Beur films are for the most part narratives told in a realist mode that have popular appeal; they are shaped by a shared colonial experience and language (French) and, with few exceptions, are by men about male-centered narratives in which women are largely marginalized. Recurrent themes are the urban multiethnic realities of unemployment, street crime, poverty, and state surveillance and regulation; the institutional, social, and personal consequences of racism; the conflicts and tensions between North African and French cultures; the intergenerational conflicts between North African émigrés and their beur children, especially with regard to patriarchal authority; and the tensions caused by uprootedness, exile, deterritorialization, nostalgia, escape, and repatriation.
The more recent evolution of beur cinema, however, suggests that its composition and concerns are provisional, as some filmmakers make the transition to other areas of filmmaking in France and address non-beur subjects. Addressing themes related to beur (and banlieue) cinema, the film Bye-Bye (1995) examines contemporary French society, which is becoming increasingly multiethnic, multiracial, hybridized, and fractured along class lines. Directed by Karim Dridi (b. 1961), a Franco-Tunisian filmmaker, Bye-Bye chronicles the anguished, violent, and indeterminate odyssey of Ismaél, a Franco-Maghrebi who escorts his younger brother, Mouloud, south from Paris via Marseilles to their parents' "homeland" in Tunisia. By framing the narrative in the context of a journey, the film emphasizes two features of postcoloniality: the territorial divide between France and its former colonies and their diasporic settlement, and the cultural paradoxes of postcoloniality. These paradoxes are signified in an effective counterpoint, in which the imperatives of capitalism and pluralism contest Islamic traditions and practices, along with parental fealty. Neither side of this deterritorialized and dislocating space offers Ismaél solace.
Ismaél's ambivalence, and Mouloud's unequivocal rejection of the "home country," underscores their generation's displacement and break with tradition and familial, especially paternal, authority. At ease neither in French nor in Maghreb cultures, Ismaél longs for another home (land), which attests to his marginality as a diasporic subject. Thus, in Bye-Bye the émigré experience forsakes the collective for the personal and exemplifies the existential characteristic of beur cinema.
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Michael T. Martin