National Cinema

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National Cinema


Before investigating the constituent elements of "national cinema," the concept of the nation must first be broached. Contrary to its attendant mythology, the nation is not an organic, homogeneous, unitary entity. Through political struggle, the unitary notion of nation is produced culturally, selected into existence from such heterogeneous and conflicting materials as language, race, ethnicity, religion, social class, gender, and sexuality to masquerade as the oneness that is the mythical terrain of the national. For Etienne Balibar, social formations reproduce themselves as nations in part by fabricating a "fictive ethnicity" that stands in for the national ethnic composition (p. 96), while Homi Bhabha views the nation as "an impossible unity" (1990, p. 1). One of the most influential contemporary theorists of nation, Benedict Anderson, maintains that nations are "imagined communities," arguing that the advent of "print-languages laid the bases for national consciousness" by making possible a symbolic gathering of the nation (pp. 6, 44). Adapting Anderson's notion of the nation as a "horizontal comradeship" produced by print culture, Ella Shohat and Robert Stam suggest that the movie audience "is a provisional 'nation' forged by spectatorship" (p. 155). Noting that Anderson's thesis is premised on literacy, Shohat and Stam argue that cinema could play a more assertive role than print culture in fostering group identities, as it, unlike the novel, is not dependent on literacy and is consumed in a public space by a community of spectators (p. 155).

Anderson and Shohat and Stam are gesturing toward the work ideology performs through cultural forms in hailing or recruiting subjects to recognize themselves as members of the national community, as national subjects. In the case of cinema, one of the most infamous examples of this kind of ideological work is found in the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will (1934), which disciplines its audience members to recognize themselves as subjects of a new National Socialist, Aryan Germany. Here cinema is a component of what Balibar describes as "the network of apparatuses and daily practices" instituting the individual as "homo nationalis from cradle to grave" (p. 90). Implicit in every national cinema, however, is its antination (Rosen, p. 391)—in the case of Nazi Germany, the Jews, homosexuals, and gypsies whose differences from the fictitious heterosexual Aryan nation cast them out of the terrain of the national and into the death camps. Historically, part of cinema's nation-building role has been to document the nation's others as those held at the limit of national belonging, as abject: for example, the African American in D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915), the Native American in Edward Sherriff Curtis's In the Land of the Headhunters (1914), or the Arab American in James Cameron's True Lies (1994) and Edward Zwick's The Siege (1998).


National cinema frequently takes on the responsibility of representing the nation to its citizens for the purpose of communicating what constitutes national identity in the context of an overwhelming flow of cinematic images from a globally aggressive Hollywood industry. In 1993, a year in which all the major Hollywood distributors earned more theatrical revenues offshore than domestically, some prominent European filmmakers insisted that the new General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) treaty include national film-importation quotas. This was not the first time quotas have been implemented to protect fragile national film cultures from the most financially successful film producer on the planet. The United Kingdom, for instance, attempted to protect British and British empire filmmakers from Hollywood with the Cinematograph Films Acts of 1927, 1938, and 1948. One of the most extreme examples of Hollywood's monopolistic incursions into foreign markets is Canada, which the US industry views as part of its domestic market and where less than 2 percent of all screen time is given over to Canadian film. In the interests of nation building and maintaining national cultures, countries such as Canada (National Film Board of Canada, Telefilm Canada), Australia (Australian Film Development Corporation), Britain (National Film Finance Corporation), France (Centre nationale de la cinématographique), and Italy (National Association for the Cinema and Similar Industries) have created various state institutions to fund and produce national cinemas. This suggests that these states see cinema beyond its commodity value, as, after Fredric Jameson, a socially symbolic act where "the production of aesthetic or narrative form is to be seen as an ideological act in its own right, with the function of inventing imaginary or formal 'solutions' to unresolvable social contradictions" (The Political Unconscious, p. 79).

The idea that Hollywood is somehow alien to the film cultures of most nations is troubled, however, by a number of prominent film studies scholars such as Thomas Elsaesser, Stephen Crofts, and Andrew Higson. Elsaesser argues that Hollywood is a major component of most national film cultures where audience expectations shaped largely by Hollywood are exploited by domestic producers. Many national cinemas translate Hollywood genres into their own national contexts, or, as Tom O'Regan writes, "indigenize" them (p. 1). Perhaps the most obvious and well-known examples of indigenizing genres are the Italian "spaghetti" westerns of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci starring Clint Eastwood. Canadian and Australian directors have also adapted the western to narrativize national cultural materials in The Grey Fox (1982, Canada) and Road to Saddle River (1993, Canada) and, more famously, Crocodile Dundee (1986, Australia). Another highly successful Australian indigenization of Hollywood genre is the Mad Max series (1979, 1981, 1985, Australia) and its reconfiguration of the road movie in a postapocalyptic antipodean context.

One of the more critically and commercially successful practitioners of genre indigenization is France's Luc Besson. Besson first ventured into Hollywood territory with Nikita (1990), a made-in-France variation on the American action film. Following the international box-office success of Nikita, Besson took on the American film industry by shooting The Professional (1994), a French version of the Hollywood gangster drama, in English on location in New York, with French lead Jean Reno. The film went on to gross more than $19 million in the US market alone. Besson's subsequent film, The Fifth Element (1997), was a $90 million science-fiction epic starring Hollywood actor Bruce Willis. With the involvement of US distributors Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Entertainment, The Fifth Element opened widely, on 2,500 American screens in its first weekend of release. These shifts in setting from Paris to New York, to a futuristic New York and, finally, to outer space, beg the question of whether or not the term "French national cinema" is a useful or adequate descriptor to apply to these two films, for in what ways may they be said to represent the nation space of France?

A similar problem is raised by the work of Australian director Baz Luhrmann, who played with American genre and capital when his production company coproduced Moulin Rouge (2001) with Twentieth Century Fox. Although the film is shot on a Sydney soundstage with Australian lead Nicole Kidman and a largely Australian production team, the film is not set in the nation space of Australia, but the mythical, digitally generated space of fin de siècle Paris as seen through the lens of the Hollywood musical as reimagined by an Australian auteur. An Australia/United States co-production, Moulin Rouge ruptures the "stable set of meanings" or codes that Higson associates with conventional understandings of the term "national cinema" (Higson, 1989, p. 37). Moulin Rouge, not unlike Besson's The Professional and The Fifth Element in their ambiguous relationship to France, steps outside of an easily recognizable Australian nation space. Commenting on what he views as the limiting imagination of "national cinema," Higson argues that "when describing a national cinema, there is a tendency to focus only on those films that narrate the nation as just this finite, limited space, inhabited by a tightly coherent and unified community closed off to other identities besides national identity" (Higson, 2000, p. 66). Besson's films and Moulin Rouge are what Higson would term "transnational" on the bases of their production and distribution; but just as importantly for Higson, their variant receptions globally as these are inflected by cultural context (pp. 68–69). This difference in cultural context exists not only outside of nations, but also within them.


Cinema was exploited by imperialist nations such as Great Britain to represent Britannia's globalizing domination of its dominions and territories in films such as the Empire Marketing Board's One Family: A Dream ofReal Things (1930), in which a white child travels the empire but makes identifications only with white settlers. In the 1920s nascent nations such as the Dominion of Canada, a former colony in the act of becoming a nation, practiced a cinema of internal colonialism that legitimated the white domination of the country's indigenous peoples in ethnographic documentaries such as Nass River Indians (Marius Barbeau, 1928).

Postcolonial cinema attempts to disrupt such national cinemas and denaturalize them as colonizing entities, thereby articulating the discourse of contested indigenous nations. In Canada, Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin documents the continuing violence of the Canadian nation-state against Indigenous First Nations in Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993) and Incident at Restigouche (1984). In Australia, Rabbit-Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce, 2002) tells the story of the white Australian nation's attempt to steal a generation of Aboriginal children from their culture, while Tracey Moffatt's Nice Colored Girls (1987) represents the exploitation of Aboriginal women by white men. New Zealand filmmaker Lee Tamahori explores the tensions between Maori identity and contemporary New Zealand culture in Once Were Warriors (1994). Moffatt's and Obomsawin's oppositional work might well be considered in the context of Third Cinema's anti-imperialist ideology and aesthetic. Although Third Cinema is generally understood to engage the neo-neocolonial paradigm of a hegemonic US cinema, the vision of two of the movement's foundational thinkers, Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, is certainly in line with the films of Moffatt and Obomsawin.


Cultural context frames an understanding of US cinema as both national and transnational. Within the United States, Hollywood produces a national cinema characterized by what Ulf Hedetoft, after Mette Hjort, describes as a thematic national "aboutness": films shot through with an American worldview (p. 281). The example par excellence of this US national cinema is, of course, the classical Hollywood western, a colonizing narrative of national becoming and belonging, a nation-building genre articulating the aggressive and perpetual US expansionism of Manifest Destiny that displaces Native Americans in films such as Stagecoach (1939), The Searchers (1956), and How the West Was Won (1962). While the Hollywood western can and has been received as a celebratory visualization of historical nation by a majority of Americans, it represents the genocidal destruction of indigenous nations for the American Indian.

Outside of the United States, Hollywood, as US transnational cinema, is a sign of US global expansion economically and ideologically. Independence Day (Roland Emmerich, 1996), a film with a worldwide gross of more than $813 million, sees the convergence of the American national and the global through its transformation of July 4, a national holiday celebrating the birth of the American nation, into a global holiday marking a US-led world order of "liberation" from oppressive forces: this time, aliens from outer space. Such films, however, are translated into different viewing cultures by their audiences. Using the American, French, and Danish receptions of Steven Spielberg's patriotic epic Saving Private Ryan (1998) as case studies, Danish critic Ulf Hedetoft argues that "foreign" audiences reinterpret US national cinema from within their own cultural optic: "'Hollywood' (as well as other national cinemas of international reach) is constantly undergoing a (re)nationalization process, temporally and spatially, a process which does not stamp out the US flavor of these cinematic products, but which negotiates their transition into and assimilation by 'foreign' mental visions and normative understandings" (pp. 281–282).

US national/transnational cinema cannot be reduced to Hollywood product, however dominant it may be. It is also comprised of the kind of independent and regional filmmaking that often troubles dominant US understandings of gender, sexuality, race, class, and history, and that is celebrated by Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival. However, independent cinema is increasingly coopted by Hollywood, as was evidenced by the "mainstreaming" of independent producer Miramax in its 1993 sale to Disney. The potential cost of such mainstreaming of independents materialized in Disney's controversial refusal to distribute Miramax's Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), Michael Moore's anti-Bush documentary, through its subsidiary Buena Vista. Hollywood itself is certainly not a bounded homogeneous entity, and has produced such nation-demythologizing films as The Parallax View (1974), Three Days of the Condor (1975), Missing (1982), and Good Night, and Good Luck (2005).

It is important to remember that US cinema is not the sole national cinema to extend its reach globally, to function transnationally. Indian cinema, principally Bollywood, has the second largest market share in global film distribution next to the United States. The Indian industry eclipses Hollywood in its staggering rate of production: in excess of 25,000 features since 1931. The notion of a pan-Indian national cinema centered in Bombay further complicates our understanding of the term "national cinema." Since the end of the 1980s, 90 percent of India's domestic film production has been in regional languages. In addition to the cinema of Bombay (vernacular Hindi/Urdu), Indian cinema is composed of at least eight regional cinemas: Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Assamese, Manipur, and Oriya. India exports its cinema to global diasporic audiences, as well as taking sizeable market shares in West Africa, Egypt, Senegal, China, Russia, and other territories.

Hong Kong is in some ways a national cinema without a nation, a transnational cinema that has functioned historically as an export industry servicing a global Chinese diaspora and making successful incursions into the markets of Indonesia, Malaysia, the People's Republic of China, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand. In 1993 Hong Kong was the world's third largest producer of films, surpassed only by India and the United States. Given its formation within a British colonial territory (1898–1927), Hong Kong and its cinema has long functioned as other to national Chinese cinemas produced by the People's Republic of China and Taiwan, offering conflicting visions of Chinese imagined communities.


The myth of the nation as a homogeneous, bounded, unitary, static, and stable entity is exploded in what Rosen would term its antinational cinema or the cinema of its others as this can be located in queer cinema such as Canada's Zero Patience (1993), and diasporic cinema such as the United Kingdom's Khush (1991), a film that combines sexual difference from the British mainstream with the racial and cultural differences of the South Asian diaspora living in England. Cinema of the diaspora disrupts and re-visions the national cinema along lines of heterogeneity and plurality by representing those others to the nation who have been dispersed from their home-lands through economic migrancy and the legacies of colonial imperialism.

For example, Gurinder Chadha's documentary I'm British But … (1989) challenges essentialist notions of Britishness and its constituent elements—Englishness, Irishness, Scottishness, and Welshness—by tracking the lives of four Brits of Asian heritage living in the United Kingdom's four countries. When these people of color speak their identifications with the countries in which they live, they do so in the distinct dialects of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, thus inhabiting what had, historically, been over determined as a white linguistic space. Chadha's subsequent film Bhaji on theBeach (1993) further inhabits the symbolic order of British national space by inserting Indo-English women into Blackpool, Britain's archetypal holiday space, and in Bend It Like Beckham (2002) football (soccer), Britain's national game, historically a white patriarchal preserve, is played by a South Asian girl. Not unlike Khush or Zero Patience and their queering of the national, Bend It Like Beckham also grapples with sexual difference through both South Asian and white middle-class British responses to homosexuality. This example of a diversified British screen has been embraced by both British and international audiences, making it one of British cinema's most commercially successful films.

In Canada questions of belonging, racism, and inter-generational and cultural conflicts shape Mina Shum's exploration of the Chinese-Canadian community in Vancouver in Double Happiness (1994). Not unlike Khush, Richard Fung's tape Orientations (1984) challenges any notion of a homogeneous diaspora in his interviews with Asian lesbians and gay men living in Toronto. Srinivas Krishna's satirical Masala (1991) circles around the question of home for the diasporic Indo-Canadian community in the wake of the 1985 Air India bombing by exploring the failures of official multiculturalism and their ramifications for two families. Krishna's film challenges historically fossilized understandings of Canada as a white nation by combining a diverse range of cultural materials including Bombay cinema, music video, Hollywood cinema, Canadian hockey, and Canadian state apparatuses. Deepa Mehta complicates further these blurred lines of national cinema identity with Sam and Me (1991) and Bollywood/Hollywood (2002), films about racial and cultural difference set in multicultural Canada, as well as Canadian-produced films set in India and Pakistan. For example, Mehta charts the painful and violent birthing of India and Pakistan nations through her representation of the 1947 partition in Earth (1998), while Fire (1996) explores a claustrophobic, regulatory heterosexuality for-bidding sexual intimacy between two Hindu women. Mehta's queering of the Hindu nation, of "Mother India," resulted in Hindu fundamentalists setting fire to cinemas in India projecting the film. Production on the third film in Mehta's "elemental" trilogy, Water, was shut down in 2000 by Hindu extremists anxious about this Indo-Canadian's representation of the Indian nation.

National cinema, then, is clearly a multifaceted and conflicted object of study. National cinema refers to a group of films produced in a specific national territory, and also serves as a descriptor for the intellectual work of academics who attempt to read and write a critique of national cinema as a field of inquiry given that the nation is less unitary than heterogenous.

SEE ALSO Canada;Colonialism and Postcolonialism;Diasporic Cinema;France;Great Britain;Ideology;Propaganda;Race and Ethnicity


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Christopher E. Gittings

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National Cinema

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National Cinema