by Clyde Taylor
Cut, no. 23, Oct. 1980, pp. 10-11
Is there such a thing as a Third World film? The evolutionary reality of Third World cinema is sometimes the victim of the conspiracy to overwhelm us with lies, drown-outs and cover stories.
Suppose that every time you heard the word “music,” the habits and memories of a thousand occasions forced you to think "disco” - that of the 24 hours of your life, disco was all your ears could find, except for a few non-disco selections tolerated in a corner of the music dial in one isolated hour when most people sleep. With predictable ingenuity, your mind might be forced to unfold your little disco ditch into a universe, complete with all the possibilities of human musical creativity, as far as you're concerned, including your preference for South Milwaukee disco over the dozens of Texas varieties and endless other choices, from historical romance disco, soap opera disco, evangelist disco to creature-feature disco, to computer tape disco to gasoline war disco, and on and on, stretching to the limits of your wide, musical horizons.
This may sound fantastic, but something like it has been done to us with visual entertainment, with films. And we begin to understand what Third World films might be when we understand the political history that brought us to this place where "film" means "movie," and why it has only the most obscure, neglected space reserved for the cinematic expression of Third World people.
From a global perspective, the political history of the cinema mirrors the political history of the modern world, the central episode of which is a simple story of misemployment and destruction by certain classes in the West of the rest of us, and the continuing fight to change that history for a better one. The films we call Third World form an anti-propaganda movement for a mental reality free of the self-serving symbolism of the monopolist political machine. The intent of the culture industry has been to concoct an artificial mental landscape harmonious with its needs, to depersonalize its audience into zombies of its economy and addicts of its industrial culture, and to trash, trivialize and erase the natural human cultures that supply its victims. The awakened films of Third World people form the decisive challenge to this symbolic enslavement because they have been the absolute target of all three of these propaganda objectives.
From the beginning, Western commercial cinema has treated symbolic representatives of Third World people with genocidal contempt. Around 1900, several films shot on lawns in England and the United States claimed to be actual newsreels of China's Boxer Rebellion and fabricated lurid, fake scenes in which the Chinese were really Englishmen or Americans, such as the beheading of a Boxer or the swarming of a missionary's home and family by a Chinese "horde." A few years later, we were given A KISS IN THE DARK, in which a White masher makes attempts to kiss a young woman sitting in a lower window. She puts her hands over his eyes and substitutes "a fat Negro mammy," who kisses him enthusiastically.
From such beginnings, people of color have been imprisoned in world-current images as coolies, "savage” Africans, easy-bedding Polynesian maidens, sleepy Indians slouching outside of saloons, treacherous Fu Manchu's, wily Japs, faithful Gunga Dins and Uncle Toms, vivacious Chiquitas, grinning banditos, slaphappy Sambos, a succession of tagalong, begging boys, or legions of faceless, falling targets for the nick-o-time cavalry, riding to the rescue with the same message across China, the North African desert or the Western plains: flatter us with your subservience, or die. This legacy of misportrayal of the world's majority as invisible, incomprehensible or inconsequential becomes a witness to the insanity of Western racism, once the cameras fall into the hands of their former victims and films finally appear where these cartoons and comic shadows assume vital coherence, guided by their own intelligence.
The concept of a Third World cinema arises slowly, relatively. For a while longer, there may be some revelation in the manifestation of non-European faces in human contexts on the screen. But a film is obviously not Third World merely because it was made in Africa, Asia or Latin America by indigenous people. The mini-film industries of Hong Kong, India, Egypt and North Africa, Manila, Mexico are as devoted to commercial pleasure, in their own unawakened manner, as any disco flick. Third World films reflect a necessary awareness of dilemmas too specific in their historic and political dimensions to be merely "human." Obviously, that awareness in the minds of many is replaced by disco variations, and for the same reasons, many even doubt the ideas of the Third World itself.
No one in his right mind sets out to make a Third World film. The origin of the best of them is, first, concern with a particular national issue, a certain class or culture. The films themselves, therefore, reflect a diversity of history and circumstance too great for us to speak of a unifying artistic criteria. There are the "living poster,” operatic epics of the Chinese Republic. There is the cinema nôvo of Brazil, with its mocking, popular symbolism (and, for my taste, a too-easy liaison between leering eroticism and residual racism). There is the post-independence African film movement, so varied as to still be in search of its essential Africanness. There are the recent masterpieces of sophisticated Cuban film art, made possible, perhaps, by the advanced appreciation of its Cuban audiences. The relative validity of individual and national styles is demonstrated by observing the specific successes of two films on similar themes, like O POVO ORGANIZADO (THE PEOPLE ORGANIZED), on Mozambique after the revolution and ANGOLA, SPEAR OF THE NATION, on that country's post-independence.
The look and style of Third World cinema is often anti-disco, anti-commercial and pro-reality. Therefore, it is common to find in these films techniques designed to puncture the slick, closed facade of Hollywood's classical style of cinematography. There is the use of non-actors, of less expensive, more naturalistic hand-held cameras, the employment of open frame shots into which characters may wander from the top of the frame, so to speak, or of foreground intervention, where a passerby walks between camera and subject, to suggest the unrehearsed unpredictability of the documentary, the repetition of shots, the alteration between color and black and white and other devices meant to interrupt the hypnotic rhythm of the film and thereby demand the viewer's conscious participation, and the more honest, less seductive use of music. The search for dismanipulative techniques has produced, to be sure, its inevitable body of clichés. But neither the chosen strategy nor its occasional overuse represent a distinctive Third World film vocabulary so much as they reflect an inclusive appreciation of the rehumanizing possibilities of international film craft.
It is in theme and ideological direction that we find Third World cinema's crucial identifications. Given the commitment to the context of the daily life of uninvented people and the relentlessness of Euro-capitalist intervention, you can, not surprisingly, find certain recurring concerns: high unemployment in slums where former subsistence farmers have been dumped, replaced by commercial crops; absentee or heartless landlordism; migrant workers recruited, abused and abandoned; genocidal "health" policies administered to the system's "surplus" labor; small, arrogant elites, investing their luxurious loot elsewhere; the readers and writers cannibalizing the talkers; the erosion and cancellation of ancient, traditional lifeways; hunger - and the effort to reverse these injustices.
A visual narrative nevertheless becomes Third World after the fact of its production, in its acceptance by its reflected community, or by people who see their condition mirrored in it, despite differences of geography or political condition. And clandestine or banned films sometimes become Third World in their adoption by world public opinion. Films become Third World, in short, by their function, once made, "by their usefulness for the people," as Fidel Castro said, "by what they contribute to man, by what they contribute to the liberation and happiness of man.”
Yet even though the Third World is a mental state for which no one holds an official passport, it would be wrong to emphasize Third World cinema's local and national preoccupations at the expense of its resolute internationalism. The making of O POVO ORGANIZADO in Mozambique by Bob Van Lierop, an African American, or of SAMBIZANGA, about Angola, by Guadaloupian Sara Maldoror, or the Ethiopian Haile Gerima's BUSH MAMA, set in Los Angeles, or Pontecorvo's THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS, or the several Latin American and African films created by Cubans, or the many Third World films made by Europeans and White Americans - all suggest the cross-fertilizations of an embryonic transnational Third World cinema movement. Young Third World filmmakers now exploit the inspiration of earlier Third World cinema successes while their elders were fortunate to find models only or mainly in Italian neorealism. These international enrichments, unparalleled in other media, help to illustrate the priority of Third World cinema as the effective medium for the public transmission of information about the rest of us.
The internationalism of this deadliest alternative to disco movieland is more than a reflex of communications mobility. It is also, again, an accurate mirroring of the political history of people now moving across borders and breaking down past isolation in search of a just world order. The dissipation of Third World isolation will be no small accomplishment, considering the past development of cultural images in the Western-controlled entertainment market place.
For decades, we have seen each other only through the eyes of those who had strictly barnyard uses for us. In the films of Third World cinema, on the other hand, we finally recognize each other as we are, as we struggle in our many sectors the one great struggle.
This article first appeared in Update, a publication of the African Film Society, in Summer, 1979. We thank them for their permission to publish it. For further information about their activities write: P.O. Box 31469, San Francisco, CA, 94131.
1. Fernando Solanas and Octavio Gettino, “Towards a Third Cinema," in Bill Nichols, ed., Movies and Methods, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.
2. Jay Leyda, Dianying (Electric Shadows): An Account of Films and the Film Audience in China, Boston: MIT Press, 1972.