Pedagogy as weapon

by Shakti Jaising

Katarzyna Marciniak and Bruce Bennett, Eds. Teaching Transnational Cinema: Politics and Pedagogy. AFI Film Readers Series. London and New York: Routledge, 2016. $39. 312 pg.

The AFI Film Reader, Teaching Transnational Cinema is a valuable contribution to film studies and pedagogy — not just because it supports film professors’ work in the classroom, but also because, in doing so, it questions the elitist, institutionalized divide between teaching and specialized research and between the classroom and the world.

Collectively, the essays included in this volume narrow the gap between film theory/philosophy and pedagogy, and also push back against what Chandra Mohanty calls an “‘empty pluralism’” (17), or what Guillermo Gomez-Pena labels “‘the new corporate humanism’” (20) that has played an enabling role in the transformation of “partially state-funded institutions … into profit-making corporate businesses” within a neoliberal world order (18). As Aga Skrodzka points out in her essay included in the volume,

“Teaching courses within the framework of transnational studies is quickly being coopted by many American universities as part of the institutional mission of fostering ‘global citizenship’ in order to better prepare young Americans to compete for jobs as leaders in a worldwide marketplace as well as members of the ‘global civil society.’” (236-237)

To challenge this cooptation by the neoliberal university, editors Natarzyna Marciniak and Bruce Bennett – drawing on Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino — conceive of the teaching of transnational cinema (like Third Cinema) as a potential ideological “weapon,” especially “in the face of the ‘post-ideological’ turn in many arts, humanities, and social science disciplines” (18).  The book therefore aims to be “not so much a manual for teaching transnational cinema on university courses as ... a set of reflections upon broader questions of pedagogy, communication and cultural criticism in which teaching, in its widest sense, is understood to be an intrinsic component of academic research” (30) and a vital means of activating thought and political engagement.  

The volume consists, in addition to the editors’ introduction and closing interview with Rey Chow, 0f fifteen essays — some of which are short position pieces — by international film scholars who teach in a variety of contexts, from Europe and America to Egypt, Turkey, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

The editors point out, “Since the early 1990s the concept of transnationalism has gained currency across disciplinary boundaries.” With increased economic globalization, cross-border migration, and the emergence of “ a rich body of films with complex production histories,”  “the rubric of transnational cinema galvanized film and media studies, drawing our attention to a complex field of what Hamid Naficy has called diasporic and ‘accented’ filmmaking, but also challenging us to think about cinema beyond the restrictive scope of the nation and to re-engage with the politics of cinema as a complex global or transcultural phenomenon” (11). Mette Hjort notes in her essay that transnationalism even found “expression in revisionist accounts of early cinema, with attention being drawn to filmmakers’ border-crossing mobility from the very beginning of film history, and to their designs, all along, on audiences situated well beyond a given national space” (155). Bruce Bennett, therefore, in the opening essay of Part 1, describes trans-nationalism as a critical framework that “brings the historical conditions of the medium to the surface” (47).

Marciniak and Bennett begin the book with The Visitor (Tom McCarthy 2007) — a film about the incarceration of a Syrian immigrant by U.S. authorities that is especially resonant within the contemporary moment of heightened xenophobia and nativism. The editors admit that it “is not an obvious example of transnational cinema” because “writer/director McCarthy is not a diasporic or ‘accented’ filmmaker, and the film is solely US-produced” (5).” The editors here imply that the category of transnational cinema is used typically to refer to films produced through trans-national funding and collaboration, or to those works made by filmmakers with a history of cross-cultural migration. However, what interests the editors in The Visitor is the recurring figure of the foreigner and the often uncomfortable questions this figure raises about cinematic encounters with foreignness.

In The Visitor a bland, white American professor is transformed by his attempts to defend an artistically oriented Syrian immigrant and his Senegalese girlfriend. Whereas the immigrants are eventually deported, the white protagonist becomes a more lively, engaged, and artistic person through his contact with them. Marciniak and Bennett argue that the film exemplifies how foreigners are essentially instrumentalized, or constructed primarily as bearers of “pedagogical use-value” (5) for native residents, who are invited to “move into a space of depoliticized affect” (21) by expressing an empathy for immigrants that masks political dynamics and hierarchies. The Visitor thus exemplifies the challenges of teaching transnational cinema and raises many questions including what it means to “avoid ‘consumerist’ emotionality” (21) and prompt reflection in the classroom on the political implications of this emotionality.

The majority of essays included in the volume invoke a pedagogy premised on enhancing close reading skills so as to attune students to films’ contradictions. In his essay Alex Lykidis describes teaching ontemporary “global Hollywood” films like Children of Men (2006) that align the viewer “with the actions of flawed white, bourgeois protagonists rather than the heroic struggles of immigrant characters” (62). Students are thus trained to recognize, through close reading, how films like these might encourage, even if in contradictory ways, “the viewer’s disidentification with white male subjectivity and agency in favor of a radical dispersal of our attention towards the margins of society” (65). Similarly, Rachel Lewis describes how teaching close analysis of transnational lesbian cinema within women’s and gender studies classrooms enables students to appreciate the contradictory ways in which globally circulating “neoliberal ideologies mediate the expression of lesbian desire,” resulting at times in the reproduction of “xenophobic norms of sexual citizenship” and at other times in the critique of “the extent to which sexual citizenship for some is secured at the expense of undocumented and stateless populations” (127).

“Global Hollywood” films like Children of Men introduce students to the complexities of audience alignment, and potential disidentification, with flawed, white protagonists. Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things is only one example of how transnational cinema might facilitate student engagement with the social and subjective consequences of economic globalization.

These essays that emphasize teaching students to grapple with a film’s political contradictions most resonated with my own classes on transnational cinema. In my experience, teaching films like Dirty Pretty Things (Stephen Frears 2002), Babel (Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu 2006), or Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle/Lovleen Tandan 2008) — formally complex texts and powerful gateways into thinking about economic globalization, contemporary geopolitics, and the politics of transnational film production and reception — inevitably entails challenging students’ (and many academics’) expectation that the study of film and cultural production is primarily about style and technique, which are assumed to be distinct from politics. Transnational films, as the editors note in the introduction, often “necessitate a complex interdisciplinary discussion” that compels teachers to think carefully about “historical, cultural, social, and ideological contexts, and how and when to offer such contexts to our students” (14). I recognized in reading some of the volume’s essays, the labor-intensive, cross-disciplinary research that it takes to politically contextualize the above-mentioned films in the classroom. The challenge, however, lies in strategizing, as Matthew Holtmeier and Chelsea Wessels point out,  “how much context to offer students” (79) so that students are not passively receiving information from the teacher, in order to decode the perceived foreignness of the text, but rather are actively participating in producing an interpretation.

To counter the limits of this pedagogy, some of the volume’s essays pose alternatives. For instance, Mette Hjort describes a course taught in Hong Kong that aimed “to bring theory and practice together” by having students engage with short film production in diverse contexts — from Palestine to Uganda — in conjunction with “canonical classics of world cinema” (166), before collaborating in the production of vodcasts that were premiered transnationally through the Internet. Similarly, Lawrence Raw describes a pedagogy of “co-creation” between students and teachers practiced in a film classroom in Turkey (180). And Katarzyna Marciniak considers the possibility that “ a virtual classroom is a potentially particularly productive site for studying transnational cinema” (275), even while recognizing that online classes might be especially amenable to the exploitation of academic labor, given that they allow “labor to be delivered remotely, without having to deal with the messiness of bodies and their affects in the classroom” (280).  

Still other essays advocate for an approach that emphasizes the global political economy of film and media and its historical role in shaping interpretation. In his contribution to the volume Bhaskar Sarkar argues that “a pedagogy of transnational cinema cannot proceed without a pedagogy of the piratical” (192). This pedagogy, he suggests, needs to take into account the “pressure” piracy places on our understanding of transnational culture today — the ways in which “street-level piratical practices push us to look beyond the gleaming multiplexes and hi-def 4K imagination: what comes into view is a world teeming with all manner of media objects and survival tactics” (198). Meanwhile, Terri Ginsberg and Tania Kamal-Eldin describe their teaching experiences in Egypt and their attempts to challenge a depoliticized transnationalism that teaches “non-Western cinema cultures to Western students.” They insist instead on a “confrontational pedagogy” that helps students recognize their interpretations “as historically particular and socially enabled, [and hence] as available for debate and transformative interpretation” (261). This strategy of encouraging debate and confrontation counters what Marciniak describes as a “safe” pedagogy, in which faculty are asked to bear the burden of protecting students from potential “triggers” (273).

Finally, I was intrigued by Rey Chow’s suggestion in the volume’s coda that film be taught alongside television dramas playing on cable channels like HBO or web platforms like Netflix. Indeed, the high production values of serialized television dramas and the increased involvement in them of film directors and actors — most notably, perhaps, the internationally successful, Tom Tykwer-produced Netflix series, Babylon Berlin — supports Chow’s suggestion to think about transnational audio-visual culture beyond “cinema” (understood primarily as feature film production and theatrical exhibition). Such an approach, that involves rethinking our conception of “cinema,” might also help support the contributors’ efforts to challenge the compartmentalization of the academic study of film and its problematic disconnection from broader politics and everyday realities.