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Third Cinema


"The anti-imperialist struggle of the peoples of the Third World and of their equivalents inside the imperialist countries constitutes today the axis of the world revolution. Third cinema is, in our opinion, the cinema that recognizes in that struggle the most gigantic cultural, scientific and artistic manifestation of our time, the great possibility of constructing a liberated personality with each people as the starting pointin a word, the decolonization of culture." These sentences were penned in 1969 by the revolutionary Argentine filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino in an essay titled "Towards a Third Cinema: Notes and Experiences for the Development of a Cinema of Liberation in the Third World."

This essay, along with several other manifestos, including the Brazilian Glauber Rocha's "Aesthetics of Hunger" and the Cuban Julio Garcia Espinosa's "For an Imperfect Cinema," placed questions regarding the interpenetration of political struggle, cultural struggle, and mass media squarely at the center of a global struggle against the intensification of Western imperialism. Other such proclamations, including Fernando Birri's "Cinema and Underdevelopment" and Tomás Gutierrez Alea's "The Viewer's Dialectic," underscored and elaborated the concerns of Latin American revolutionaries with media and mass movements. What Solanas and Getino called "third cinema" was imagined, in short, as a cinema of liberation. Third cinema was to be filmmaking that would aid nationalist movements in creating a new sociocultural solidarity in the struggle against Western imperialism and for national self-determination.

Third Cinema and the Third World

Roy Armes, in his important work Third World Film Making and the West, suggests that during the 1960s "the steady development of industrialization combined with growing national awareness led almost imperceptibly to a belief, which came to be widely held, that an era of socialist revolution was dawning throughout the Third World." This belief was based in part upon Cuban resistance during an invasion orchestrated by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, and the success of Algerian nationalists after eight years of armed struggle against French rule in 1962. Armes notes that there gradually emerged what Gérard Chaliand called "a sort of third world euphoria" over the potential for genuine political change. This euphoria was connected to a host of factors including widespread "anti-colonial struggle, opposition to the Vietnam war, student revolt, a new consciousness on the part of American blacks, the emergence of armed guerilla groups in Latin America," and a reconceptualization of revolutionary strategies from the ferment of China and the Soviet Union. From so many uprisings and changes of consciousness there emerged the distinct possibility of what was to be a tri-continental revolution imagined via figures such as Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara, and Ho Chi Minh.

This possiblity of a tricontinental revolution informed the work of many third world revolutionaries and filmmakers. The people aided by their leaders and artists would reinvent the terms of a new social order free from domination by outsiders, or indeed by anyone. To put an end to the systematic, violent, and continuous exploitation of the third world by first world economies, militaries, and persons, it was necessary to invent revolutionary strategy on several levels and, moreover, revolutionary culture. Filmmakers from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and even Europe bent themselves to this task. The ideas of strategy and culture are important here because the category of "thirdness," as it turns out for many theorists of third cinema, was to be assigned according to a film's aesthetic and political strategy as much as by either its geographical provenance or its thematic content. In many cases, the operative question both for film commentators and filmmakers was, What can a cinema of liberation accomplish in bringing about the overthrow of Western imperialist domination and creating revolutionary culture? Given the ways in which colonized nations are dominated by their colonizers at economic, geographical, cultural, intellectual, and psychological levels, this cinema of liberation was understood to be, necessarily then, a cinema of subversion. Revolutionary cultural politics needed to subvert the dominant paradigms of social organization and interpersonal relations. As the filmmaker Glauber Rocha, whose masterfully subversive works including Deus e o diabo na terra do sol (1963; Black God, White Devil ) and Antonio das Mortes (1969) remain staples of film-history courses, put it, "When one talks of cinema, one talks of American cinema. The influence of the cinema is the influence of American cinema, which is the most aggressive and widespread aspect of American culture throughout the world. For this reason, every discussion of cinema made outside Hollywood must begin with Hollywood" (cited in Armes, p. 35).

Formal Dimensions

The inception of third cinema brought together participants in a variety of anticolonial revolutions during a period in which the world was understood to be fundamentally polarized along lines of nation and class. Beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s, many third world writers and filmmakers saw themselves working in their own national contexts but connected intimately to a global uprising against worldwide racist and capitalist colonization. These uprisings extended from the Cuban and Algerian revolutions to political upheavals in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Senegal, and Vietnam. Many of these films appear crude and characterized by low production values but revolutionary filmmakers found it necessary to work on very small budgets with whatever materials were available. Most of the films are black and white and made with few takes. However, Espinosa's idea of "imperfect cinema" is central here because the practical and economic challenges to film production have formal consequences that speak to and of the problems faced by emergent nations.

Third cinema often uses a realistic style associated with cinema verité or sometimes with Italian neorealism. At times it uses nonprofessional actors or even workers and ordinary people doing their everyday tasks (as in the Chilean director Patricio Guzmán's three-part documentary The Battle of Chile [19751978]). Some of the films are forms of social realism that take a typical figure or situation and create an archetypical narrative that shows how the prevailing social order limits and often destroys individual possibilities. Filmmakers such as Lino Brocka (Philippines), Hector Babenco (Brazil), and Dariush Mehrjui (Iran) have worked in this manner. At the same time, figures such as Rocha, Djibril Diop Mambety (Senegal), and Gutierrez Alea (Cuba) use mythic elements and modernist devices of fragmentation. In almost every case, films that are considered to be part of the third cinema corpus make difficult demands on their viewers, who are addressed such that they must not only understand the films' nontraditional portrayals of the world but act upon that portrayal in order to change the world.

Periodizing Third Cinema

The third cinema movement, which emerged as a corollary to the worldwide decolonization movement, exploded in the late 1960s and thereafter went through several incarnations. In particular, one could discern three breaks. The inaugural moment of third cinema, which carried the movement through the 1970s, was followed by an academic and institutional revitalization during the mid-1980s that focused on reception and interpretation as well as the practice of filmmaking. This mid-1980s resurgence of interest in third cinema occurred in part because it was felt that both national and perhaps more pointedly festival audiences did not easily fit into a standard differentiation between colonizer and colonized.

The uneasy fit of spectators into opposing first and third worlds, colonizers and colonized, which were formerly imagined as polar opposites, was exacerbated by the relative failure of revolutionary uprisings in the colonies to bring about the liberation of colonized peoples despite the fact that the colonies themselves had achieved nominal independence. It was further complicated by the growing numbers of third-world diasporic populations who faced difficult and vexing questions of existence and identity in the Western metropoles. Claiming that the unequal economic exchange between the first and the third world had its analogue in the unequal symbolic exchange between the first and the third world, Teshome Gabriel suggested that one of the effects of third cinema was to displace the Western(ized) viewer from his accustomed position of the privileged interpreter of the image. In assigning the category of thirdness to cinema, the spectators' reception became part of that assignation and Gabriel proposed that it was also possible to read "first" or "second" cinema (cinema which registered the malaise or alienation of third world subjects but was not in itself revolutionary) in a third cinema way. However, despite the blurring of some polar distinctions between oppressive colonizer and oppressed colonial subject, many if not most of the intellectuals, organizers, and filmmakers involved with what was still, if with some reservations, called third cinema, worked in solidarity with ongoing revolutionary activity in places like Nicaragua, El Salvador, and the Philippines. Finally, in the opening years of the twenty-first century, there was a growing reassessment of third cinema practices, which took account of postcolonial theories, globalization, and the emergence of what might be called a world media system.

Ideology: Racism and Identification

Third cinema set out to destroy various aspects of what has been called the colonial mentality and to replace it with various forms of cultural affirmation. Summing up the situation of the third world and its peoples in 1969, Solanas and Getino wrote, "Just as they are not masters of the land upon which they walk, the neo-colonized people are not masters of the ideas in their heads" (p. 48). In a situation in which colonial control was maintained not only by economic and police violence but by mind control, third cinema was given the status of a weapon in a war that was not only for land and for laboring bodies, but also for minds. Quoting from their landmark film La Hora de los Hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces, 1968), a scathing analysis of the structure of Argentine society that sought to at once explain the violence foisted upon Argentina by Western capitalism and to offer a revolutionary solution, Solanas and Getino write, "In order to impose itself, neo-colonialism needs to convince the people of a dependent country of their own inferiority. Sooner or later the inferior man recognizes Man with a capital M; this recognition meant the destruction of his defenses. If you want to be a man, says the oppressor, you have to be like me, speak my language, deny your own being, transform yourself into me."

The situation of colonial identification with the oppressor was forcefully formulated fifteen years earlier by one of the clear influences on this manifesto, Frantz Fanon, the philosopher, psychoanalyst, and expositor of negritude from Martinique. Fanon, after completing his education in Paris and painfully discovering that in spite of his colonial French education he was not seen to be French by the French colonizers of Martinique, lived and worked in Algeria. In Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Fanon wrote, "To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture. The Antilles Negro who wants to be white will be the whiter as he gains greater mastery of the cultural tool that language is. Historically, it must be remembered that the Negro wants to speak French because it is the key that can open doors which were still barred to him fifty years ago." Thus in a film like La noire de (Black Girl, 1966) by the Senegalese writer and director Ousmane Sembene, an impoverished Senegalese woman who works as a maid for a white expatriate French couple is persuaded to return with them to France to work in their home. Audiences see how her need to leave a life with no promising future in a Senegal recoiling under the destruction of colonization is coupled to her aspiration for the wealth and power of the Western metropole. Her desire for a better life in France becomes part of her oppression and eventual destruction. Although motivated by dreams of a better life in the colonial center, she finds instead utter isolation and virtual enslavement. Her tragedy, which Sembene handles with a devastating economy of means that requires from audiences an intense engagement with the experience of the Senegalese protagonist, is, at the end of the film, shown as reported by a French newspaper in two column inches. The contrast between what she has undergone in the house of the French and the official story told in the "objective" language of the press raises her tragedy to the level of outrage while showing how inadequate dominant media are to understand the colonial condition.

Mass Communications as Weaponry

What Fanon identified as the cultural and psychological dimensions of a racistthat is, white supremacist, imperialisticcapitalism, Solanas and Getino saw as being extended and intensified through mass communications:

As early as the 17th Century, Jesuit missionaries proclaimed the aptitude of the [South American] native for copying European works of art. Copyists, translator, interpreter, at best a spectator, the neocolonized intellectual will always be encouraged to refuse to assume his creative possibilities. Inhibitions, uprootedness, escapism, cultural cosmopolitanism, artistic imitation, metaphysical exhaustion, betrayal of country all find fertile soil in which to grow. (p. 47)

In seeking an alternative to mass communication's cooptation and colonization of spectators, all of the cultural conditions noted above become themes for various third cinema filmmakers: The culture, politics, psychology, and metaphysics of colonialism are analyzed at great length. For example, another of Sembene's films, Xala (1973), depicts a postcolonial high government official of Senegal replicating the same patterns of domination practiced by the colonial masters: he steals the people's rice and fills the radiator of his Mercedes Benz with imported Evian waterbut eventually he pays the price for his betrayal. In Gutierrez Alea's Memories of Underdevelopment (1968), the bourgeois protagonist, unable to identify with the project of the Cuban revolution despite his nationalist inclinations, cannot tap his creative powers and wastes away into "metaphysical exhaustion" and irrelevance. In Filipino filmmaker Lino Brocka's great Manila in the Claws of Light (1975), a provincial couple is lured by the glitz of Manila to the metropole in search of a better life, only to meet with betrayal and destruction.

The three films mentioned above along with myriad others foreground the pitfalls of what has been referred to in shorthand as a colonial mentality. Solanas and Getino bring the question of colonial culture to the question of neocolonial media as follows: "Mass communications tend to complete the destruction of a national awareness and of a collective subjectivity on the way to enlightenment, a destruction which begins as soon as the child has access to these media, the educational culture of the ruling classes. Mass communications are more effective for neocolonialism than napalm" (pp. 4849). They are more effective than napalm, for Solanas and Getino, because first world, capitalist mass communication's industries structure the imagination and organize the desire of viewers in terms or patterns that run counter to their own individual and collective/nationalist best interests. In this view, aside from seducing viewing subjects away from the immediate materiality of their own problems and the potential, collective solutions that may be at hand, "mass communications" as they stand under capitalism effect the ongoing normalization of, in Solanas and Getino's words, "Violence, Crime and Destruction [as] Peace, Order and Normality." For this reason, "Truth then amounts to subversion. Any form of expression or communication that tries to show national reality is subversion " (p. 49).

First, Second, and Third Cinema and the Lie of Neutrality

To equate the "showing of reality" with "subversion" does not necessarily lead to a naive theory about a medium that can transparently represent reality. Rather, what passes for reality is inexorably tied to the forms by which it is rendered. It was understood that representational forms, from news formats to standard Hollywood narratives of individual heroism, were and are part of the functioning of institutions, as well as the functioning of cultural and economic power. Therefore, it was also understood that control of the spectator is central to the maintenance of power. Opposed to such hegemonic functionality, third cinema creates an activist relation to knowledge making; third cinema makers work with "a camera in one hand and a rock in the other." They tried to show that because all representation is shot through with power relations, the most pernicious representations are generally those in which the processthat is, the mode of representingis naturalized and/or made invisible. If representation appears larger than life, as something like a second nature, human beings are simultaneously persuaded of their powerlessness. Third cinema endeavors, in one way or another, to show the world as being constructed in and through social relations.

In bourgeois cinema, write Solanas and Getino, "Man is accepted only as a passive and consuming object; rather than having his ability to make history recognized, he is only permitted to read history, contemplate it, listen to it, undergo it" (p. 51). This leads to another important set of distinctions impacting the term third cinema, for "thirdness" is to be distinguished from a "firstness" and "secondness" in the cinema. First cinema is the dominant Hollywood product, a "spectacle aimed at a digesting object." "The world, experience and historic process are enclosed within the frame of a painting, the same stage of a theater, and the movie screen; man is viewed as a consumer of ideology, not as the creator of ideology" (p. 51). Auteurist cinema, including the French new wave and Brazilian Cinema Novo, constitute second cinema. Here the filmmaker seeks a new film language and endeavors to challenge social constraints, but ultimately finds him or herself "'trapped inside the fortress' as [Jean Luc] Godard put it" (Solanas and Getino, p. 52). The second cinema often thematizes the situation of disaffected colonial subjects but can neither posit nor effect a social basis of transformation, caught up as it is in the ideology of bourgeois individualism. It thus remains closer to forms of existentialism but is not yet revolutionary. Third cinema sets out to fight "the system," and sees itself as a weapon in a collective struggle against racist, capitalist domination. It is defined as a cinema of liberation. It understands the collective character not only of history making but of historically individuated subjects.

Significance of Art

It is important to draw out the implications of third cinema as a practical critique of third world populations within the first and second worlds. Third cinema is put forward by Solanas and Getino as "above all, a new conception of filmmaking and the significance of art in our times" (p. 54).

Their phrase "I make the revolution; therefore I exist, " echoes Rocha's important formulation in his essay from the same period, "The Aesthetics of Hunger": "The moment of violence is the moment when the colonizer becomes aware of the colonized." In other words, within the regime of institutionalized violence, any claim to existence, any assertion of will by the colonized, is taken as an act of violence or revolution by the colonial regimefor it is the working conceit of colonial regimes that colonial populations do not have will, do not suffer pain, humiliation, starvation, torture, and death, have no legitimate claims on the placid, beneficent world of colonial domination; and indeed, do not exist.

From such claims regarding revolution and violence emerges a theory of knowledge: "There is no knowledge of a reality as long as that reality is not acted upon, as long as its transformation is not begun on all fronts of struggle." To emphasize this point, Solanas and Getino invoke Marx's eleventh thesis on Ludwig Feuerbach: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it." Connecting third cinema to Marxism indicates that the historical development of class consciousness must be linked to developments of race consciousness and nationalist consciousness in the process of knowledge making. The world is not given merely in its representations. Representations present an interested picture of the world; in short, a worldview. This point connects the decolonization movements with the history and theory of Marxist revolution, and these thematics as well as those that arose with the negritude movement inform to varying degrees the work of many third cinema filmmakers.

I make the revolution; therefore I exist. This is the starting point for the disappearance of fantasy and phantom to make way for living human beings. The cinema of the revolution is at the same time one of destruction and construction: destruction of the image that neocolonialism has created of itself and of us, and construction of a throbbing, living reality which recaptures truth in any of its expressions.

source: Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, "Towards a Third Cinema."

Authors of History

According to Solanas and Getino, the connection of third cinema to revolutionary practice led to the discovery of "a new facet of cinema: the participation of people who were [formerly] considered spectators" (p. 61). Thus, unlike in first and second cinema, film is seen not as a spectacle but as a "detonator or a pre-text." Third cinema is experimental, and impels its audience toward social change: spectators become actors, the authors of history. "The film act means an open-ended film; it is essentially a way of learning" (p. 62). Thus, as opposed to traditional cinema, third cinema is "cinema fit for a new kind of human being, for what each one of us has the possibility of becoming " (p. 63). The third cinema movement therefore represents a consciousness of the history-making and knowledge-making aspects of film and understands the historical role of cinema as creating a liberated society. The function of third cinema, while centrally concerned with the objective transformation of society, is not only extrinsic to viewing subjects but intrinsic as well. For all of the debates that have occurred over the tenability and fate of third cinema, the urgent call of Solanas and Getino may yet be heard: "The decolonization of the filmmaker and of films will be simultaneous acts to the extent that each contributes to collective decolonization. The battle begins without, against the enemy who attacks us, but also within, against the ideas and models of the enemy to be found inside each one of us " (p. 63).

See also Anticolonialism: Latin America ; Marxism ; Nationalism: Cultural Nationalism ; Negritude ; Neocolonialism ; Third World .


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Beller, Jonathan. Acquiring Eyes: Philippine Visuality, Nationalism and the World-Media-System. Manila, Philippines: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2004.

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Chaliand, Gérard. Revolution in the Third World. Translated by Diana Johnstone. Harmondsworth, U.K., and New York: Penguin; 1978.

Espinosa, Julio Garcia. "For an Imperfect Cinema." In New Latin American Cinema, edited by Michael T. Martin. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Translated by Charles Lam Markmann. 1952. New York: Grove, 1967.

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Gutierrez Alea, Tomás. "The Viewer's Dialectic." In New Latin American Cinema, edited by Michael T. Martin. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997.

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Solanas, Fernando, and Octavio Getino. "Towards a Third Cinema: Notes and Experiences for the Development of a Cinema of Liberation in the Third World." In Movies and Methods: An Anthology, edited by Bill Nichols. Vol. 1. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

Wayne, Michael. "The Critical Practice and Dialectics of Third Cinema." In The Third Text Reader: On Art, Culture, and Theory, edited by Rasheed Araeen, Sean Cubitt, and Ziauddin Sardar. London and New York: Continuum, 2002.

Jonathan Beller

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