What do piracy and new technologies mean for cinema? With the decline of movie theatres and the emergence of new digital media over the past few decades, concerns over the death of cinema and cinephilia have been shared by many intellectuals and cinephiles. This concern finds its roots in Susan Sontag’s renown essay The Decay of Cinema (1996) in which she believes the essence of cinephilia is fundamentally tied to the experience of “going to the cinema” and being captivated in the dark movie theatre, 1 and more recently, in David Bordwell’s apprehension that “films have become files.”2 These viewpoints have sparked debates between older and younger generations of cinephiles from Western and non-Western countries regarding whether the postmodern digital and internet media could ultimately jeopardise the ontology and originality of cinema, or they herald a new era characterised by more diversified breed of cinematic practices. This dossier responds to the debate from the latter perspective by foregrounding the properties of piracy and the consequent development of new cinematic practices within a global decolonial frame. 

With the development of new technologies and operations (from videotapes, VCDs, DVDs, to more recently, the internet) over the past 40 years, piracy has played a crucial role in expanding the reach of underground, independent, and arthouse films to a wider audience. It has been instrumental in overcoming limitations imposed by local cinema infrastructure, including censorship, transnational boundaries, and financial constraints. If we move beyond the ethical, legal and economic considerations surrounding intellectual property rights and copyright infringement, in what context are pirated films circulated? What are the new horizons that piracy opens out? And to what extent does piracy transform our relationship with cinema? To this end, this dossier is dedicated to the heterogeneous piracy practices that are integral to an alternative film culture. This film culture, propelled by piracy, foregrounds on-demand film spectatorship and small-screen consumption, thereby challenging the prevailing cultural hegemony enforced by not only the local monolingual power but also global capitalist structures. 

In this dossier, the contributors outline diverse forms of film distribution and consumption associated with piracy across different geo-political contexts. All the contributions provide a critical perspective on power, capital and ownership. 

One of the main arguments presented in this dossier is the progressive democratic potential of piracy as a means to challenge pre-existing power dynamics. Amanda Robusti analyses how a pirate streaming service, Videoteca di Classe, becomes an anti-fascist force by circulating leftist films and bypassing the official distribution channels controlled by the far-right Italian government. In my article, I provide an overview of the way in which piracy has facilitated new filmmaking practices, grassroots cinephile culture, and public engagement in China, opening up new distribution and exhibition avenues “independent” from the official ideological discourse imposed by the Chinese Communist Party. Similarly, drawing on Michel Foucault’s concept of “transgression”, Imran Firdaus pinpoints that film piracy in Bangladesh plays a radical role in democratising the distribution and exhibition of national culture, resulting in the emergence of a new cinephilia and the growth of independent filmmaking practices. 

Apart from transgressing the oppressive political forces, piracy as part of a postmodern flux cuts across national and cultural boundaries and fosters the hybridity of culture and commerce. In their empirical research of piratas (piracy vendors) in Colombia, Juana Suárez and Luisa González provide insight into the operation of the alternative distribution and consumption ecosystems in the country. These vendors break cultural and class barriers in disseminating films to metropolitan and regional audiences and filmmakers from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, thus expanding access beyond the intellectual elite circle and narrow economic circuits. 

Furthermore, piracy provides a creative way of preserving cultural memory and re-telling history. Scarlette Nhi Do examines YouTube as an “inadvertent film archive”, hosting pirated feature films from the second Indochina war, thus helping to sustain memories and uphold national identity for the South Vietnamese diaspora. Wendy Haslem questions the ideas of “ownership” and “originality” within the context of Australian archive films. In her article, piracy refers to ways in which fragmented archival images and sounds are remixed to expose the underlying power dynamics present in the original films, in doing so “to create counter narratives that disrupt the dominant, homogenous sense of identity proposed by films representative of a nation”. 

Gender was another recurring concern in the compilation of this dossier. Traditional cinephile culture is never solely constructed by the pure love of cinema, but is often “addressed to a masculine public or constructed for a masculine gaze”.3 The desire for women in a cinephilic gaze is framed as art valued for its formal qualities and relationship to film history. Cinephilic activities have historically been associated with a form of masculine sociability. Piracy culture, in many ways, reinforces this tradition. In the absence of cultural/ethical gatekeepers such as film rating systems and industry regulations, the representation of erotic or explicit sexual acts in films within the context of piracy cultivates a predominantly male spectator and perpetuates the emphasis on cinema as a reflection of masculine imagery associated with white patriarchy. Whilst male cinephiles nostalgically recall their experiences of viewing pirated films, collecting DVDs, and organising cine-club with their pals, it immediately raises the question of what role women play in this film culture, beyond being passive sexual objects on screen peeped through the voyeuristic male gaze from their domestic screens. The representations of women in turn prompt me to delve into issues of inclusion and exclusion, encompassing not only gender but also race and class.

With the majority of the contributors being women or individuals marginalised within the heterosexual white male-dominated circle of cinema, this dossier seeks to challenge the assumed normativity of the existing hierarchies by providing a nuanced decolonial feminist perspective. Here, female critics, junior scholars and cineastes from the Global South take the initiative together to redeem their agency and to characterise the flow of film culture with their own logics and experiences. 


  1. Susan Sontag, “The Decay of Cinema,” New York Times, 25(2, 1996).
  2. David Bordwell, Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies (Madison: Irvington Way Institute Press, 2012), p. 8.
  3. Geneviève Sellier, Masculine Singular: French New Wave Cinema (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), p. 28.

About The Author

Xiang FAN is a film researcher and teacher, based in University of the Arts London. She received her PhD in media communications and cultural studies from Goldsmiths University of London. Her research focuses on Chinese independent and art cinema, film festivals and exhibition culture, women’s cinema, the archive and unspoken history. She is the dossier editor of “Cinema and Piracy”. She is the also the editor of Chinese Independent Cinema Observer. Her monograph Contemporary Art Cinema Culture in China is forthcoming in 2023 as part of the Bloomsbury’s "Global East Asian Screen Cultures" book series.

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