It was in a multiplex in Singapore two summers ago. Hollywood productions were scheduled in the five other theatres but I ended up in the sixth one where the then latest Indian blockbuster, the Tamil-language Aahi/Jeans (S. Shankar, India, 1998), played to a full house. It was the usual Indian masala fare, a comedy cum romance, the narrative interrupted by lavish musical numbers. Taking place amidst Indians in the USA, some of the musical intermissions were set in places like Disneyland or on the lawn of a suburban Californian bungalow. Toward the end, however, there was a musical number of a kind I had not seen before. The lovers were singing and dancing in a continuous swing against an incessantly changing background setting, taking them from one place to the next. They started off in front of Taj Mahal, but then the backdrop changed and they were dancing in Paris, in front of Tour Eiffel and L’arc de Triomphe, then they went on dancing in Rome, the Coliseum on the background, then in New York, in front of the World Trade Centre, and then – near the Egyptian Sphynx. I no longer remember the other stops of their dance itinerary but it included places of the kind that an advertisement for a “private-Concord-around-the-world-in-the-year-2000” promised – Davos, Chichen-Itza, Stonehenge, Samarkand – everywhere you may want to be in an around-the-world-adventure. Powerfully focused on each other, the world was in the feet of these Indian lovers. They were changing costumes and places without breaking the pace of the dance. They were beautiful and rich, nothing to do with the slums of Calcutta. They were not confined to an ethnic enclave or a remote quiet place where they could love each other in seclusion. The background of their love affair consisted of prime tourist attractions, which they were consuming and dispensing of as picture-postcards, a universe defined solely by their mutual attraction but comprising of a multiplicity of places. The wonders of the world were no longer reserved for affluent Western tourists, now they were nothing more than a backdrop for the Indian couple.
The Indian dance number made me, once again, think of the subtle change that I observe in the representation of place in current international cinema. Every next film festival I go to (usually Rotterdam, Berlin, Thessaloniki) features at least several international films that I can add to my overlong list of films preoccupied with migrations and places. In these films, East and West, North and South, center and periphery are no longer used as meaningful grid coordinates, and entrenched spatial division lines gradually become void of meaning. The hierarchy of places is subverted and changed ‘from below,’ revealed in films that come from all possible corners of the world and made by directors who work independently from one another. The discourse on place is no longer a prerogative of the ‘center’ reflecting on its ‘margins.’ What formerly was deemed a ‘periphery’ is endowed with new vitality that challenges the traditional narratives of locale and movement and replaces them with new takes on place and itinerary.
In our times of migrations and the Internet, realities are changing in a way that excites all people working in the narrative arts. New fascinating stories, evolving around new itineraries and locations, come into being. While Hindus from America, Canada, England, and the Emirates flock back to one particular ‘site’ (the grounds of the Kumbh Mela festival near the Ganges river), software programmers sit in Bangalore offices and work on orders coming from the far away locales of the Silicon valley, Vancouver, Manchester, and Dubai. While diasporic Sindhi and Sikh activists build ‘homelands’ in cyberspace, a retired Bollywood actor sips spiced tschai at a jungle ‘hideout,’ waiting for his charismatic bandit kidnapper with the long moustache to release him. It all sounds like movie plots where traditional notions of direction and location are profoundly subverted, and the representation of place and movement is no longer tackled as before.
Here I will talk of the politics of the place as an ‘expanding universe,’ revealed in international cinema of the 1990s. The ‘expanding universe’ finds expression in filmmaking which displays articulate interest in exploring faraway places, in interacting with barely known peoples, and, in general, in making new localities imaginable. Contrary to the earlier pattern, Europe and North America are no longer the main arena where forces contend or events unfold and where filmmakers and their protagonists imagine themselves. New worlds have come into existence. Formerly marginalized places are now legitimate settings for a film action. A new culturally significant space is being constructed to allow the members of the growing community of global migrants to overcome the brand mark atmosphere of lost homelands and re-experience themselves in a meaningful and coherent universe, one in which place is not a postulate but is perpetually constructed by movement. In a discussion of a number of recent films I will show that world cinema has already produced a critical mass of works giving an expression of this discourse.
I will outline the shifts in representing place as I see them revealed in several types of representations. First, I will look at the range of cinematic works that focus on movements: the growing number of films that explore diasporas-in-the-making, the processes of migration and changing places, as well as itinerants and journeying. Second, I will look at the change in the semantics of ‘belonging’ to a place by looking at some plots of non-returning. Third, I will consider films where location is made a leading agent of the narrative. And fourth, I will look into narratives where the interaction of peripheries defines a new place, one that is semantically different and cancels the need of a center.
Diasporas in the making, journeying, itinerants
Traditionally, migration has been explored through the painful and disquieting experiences that come along. One cannot possibly migrate without experiencing disturbance and pain, and this is what film has predominantly focused on in the past. Changing places has been looked upon as something undesirable, something bringing harsh confrontations and trouble. Let’s take just the example of films focusing on the migration of Turks, but such can be found in most cinemas of the world, national and exilic. The anxiousness of village-city migrations has been explored in Turkish masterpieces, such as Halit Refig’s Gurbet Kuslari/ Birds of Exile (1964), Yilmaz Güney’s Sürü/Herd (Zeki Okten, Turkey, 1978) or At/Horse (Ali Ozgentürk, Turkey, 1982). The bitter experiences of penetrating into the fortress of Europe have been treated in films like Otobus/The Bus (Tunç Okan, Sweden/Turkey, 1974) featuring illegal immigrants left on their own in Stockholm, who do not dare to leave the vehicle and venture into the unknown territory of the Western metropolis, and later on in Reise der Hoffnung/Journey of Hope (Xavier Koller, Switzerland/Turkey, 1990) showing the denigration of illegal Turkish migrants in the Alps. Adaptation and displacement are further problematised in the work of Tevfic Baser. His 40 Quadratmeter Deutschland/40 Square Meters Germany (Tevfic Baser, Germany, 1986) tells the claustrophobic story of the Turkish bride of a Gastarbeiter confined to a tiny one-bedroom apartment. Many young directors of Turkish ethnicity – members of the movement of the New Turks or those born abroad to Turkish parents – continue tackling the unsettling problems of migration and isolation in a range of films that enjoy a growing recognition and acclaim.
Moving around cannot bring else but disquieting experiences, indeed, but staying in one place is no longer possible. Everyone is on the move, everyone is displaced and lives in change. Countries that used to be traditional sources of emigration are now turning into countries of immigration (Ireland, Spain, Poland). Deterritorialisation, exile, journeying, border-crossings, life in diasporas, growing awareness of instability and change are all relatively new features of our reality. Respectively, a new understanding of migration gradually comes into place. Many of the contemporary migrations are no longer movements from a (perceived) periphery to a center, but can be described as periphery-to-periphery ones. The directions of these migrations are no longer along the straightforward axis of East-West and South-North. The Bosnian migrants, for example, ended up in America and Western Europe, but also in Pakistan, Malaysia, South Africa, and Argentina. Those involved in migrations do not stay permanently at the destination they have first reached but increasingly live through a secondary migration, or continue to migrate. The older localities change, and new ones, never heard of before, obtain validation. Worlds that were unlikely to touch or collide now intersect and overlap.
Capturing the feel of life on the move is becoming increasingly intriguing for filmmakers who realize that migrations and life in diasporas are basic modes of existence in the contemporary world. The cinematic imagination empowers the marginalized migrants to imagine themselves as pieces in the diverse mosaic of the global universe. There are at least several distinct thematic spheres related to migrations where international cinema has been yielding a significant output over the last decade: on diasporas-in-the-making, on the very process of migration, on itinerants and travelers, all subtly problematizing the hierarchical notions of place.
Diasporas-in-the-making. Alongside a continuous cinematic interest in established diasporas such as the Chinese or Indian one, there is a significant proliferation of films that closely follow various aspects in the formation of the diasporas-in-the-making. Triggered by the economic and social crisis in the Balkans, for example, unprecedented numbers of Bosnians and Albanians have been on the move; their migratory experiences reflected in a range of films from around the globe. But the interest in the mixing of traditionally isolated spheres seems to be strongest when it comes down to the recent migrations of the Russians. The changing place of the Russians, for example, has attracted scores of filmmakers who follow the formation of this new diaspora – from Israeli Clara Hakedosha/Saint Clara (Ari Folman and Ori Sivan, 1996) and Dutch Vaarwel Pavel/Farewell, Pavel (Rosemarie Blank, 1999) to Hungarian Bolshe Vita (Ibolya Fekete, 1996) and Greek Apo tin akri tis polis/ From the Edge of the City (Constantine Giannaris, 1998). Films about migrating Russians were also made in countries like Switzerland, Finland, Germany, Sweden, Senegal, UK, China, and many more. A diaspora-in-the-making, migrating Russians have been an object of intense interest in international media and cinema of the 1990s. But while media most prominently reported on the brain drain of Russia and on the jet-set lifestyles of the nouveau riche, the spotlight in cinema seems to be taken by migrating simple individuals, often women. No longer marked by the straightforward resentment and fear of Russian dominance from Cold War times, these works rather reveal a mixture of love-hate attraction, or even sympathy and nostalgia for the specific Russian kitsch and worn-out revolutionary symbolism.
Migrating. A number of films focus on the actual journey, the physical act of migrating. Clandestins (Nicolas Wadimoff, Denis Chouinard, Switzerland/Canada/France/Belgium, 1997) explored the painful journey of a group of stowaways who sail through the Atlantic locked in a freight container. A Russian man is destined to spend this claustrophobic journey alongside a streetwise Gypsy boy, a destitute Romanian mother, and a couple of desperate Arabs, all longing for the promised shores of Canada, all inferior outcasts. Taking off from somewhere in the Southern hemisphere, in La nave de los sueños/Ship of Dreams (Ciro Diran, Columbia/Venezuela/Mexico, 1995) another freight of stowaways sails toward the same utopian paradise. Bosnians and Cubans, Kurds and Congolese – the world is on the move. They all hope that the restless moving around brings them closer to the Promised Land of their dreams.
Itinerants. Many of the films in the international spotlight of the 1990s displayed interest in travelling groups or migrants. Tony Gatlif’s Latcho Drom (France, 1994) told the history of Gypsies migrating through space and time from Radjastan through Istanbul and Bucharest to Andalusia and subverted the traditional idealization and stylization of this ethnic group, simultaneously celebrating migration as a lifestyle. Through Gatlif’s work the Gypsies, a group which has always kept the interest of international filmmakers, came powerfully into the spotlight once again. A number of lesser-known films from across Europe and America featured the new Roma migrations in the 1990s and their new diasporic interactions. Itinerants, however, were not necessarily Gypsies – Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Gabbeh (Iran, 1997) was also set among a group of transhumant travelers.
Subverted hierarchy of places. Each place can be seen hierarchically, as consisting of center and periphery. But hierarchies are conditional and what may look central from one point of view may be marginal in a different context. For the Guatemalan protagonists in the migration classic El Norte (Gregory Nava, USA/UK, 1983) the Californian territory may seem the center of the world, but to others it is only a marginal borderland. The African migrants in La Promesse (Belgium, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 1996) make Belgium the center of their small universe, but once here they are confined within an isolated ethnic slum. To the Russian migrants in Last Resort (UK, Paul Pavlikovsky, 2000) England seems to be acceptably central but here they are confined to the depressed community of Margate. A slogan that became a movie title – Bu jian bu san/Be There or Be Square! (China, Xiaogang Feng, 1999)- tells it all; the film features the disillusionment with the ‘American Dream’ as experienced by two Chinese protagonists to whom United States has been postulated the ultimate center of the world, a hierarchy of places which ends up in shambles.
Impossibility or unwillingness to return
Luchino Visconti’s Morte a Venezia/Death in Venice (Italy/France, 1971), based on Thomas Mann’s novella, is the story of a German writer who, seeing himself unable to overcome a homoerotic obsession and leave the city plagued by epidemic, ends a tragic and lonely death far away from where he belongs. Thomas Mann’s plot was recently reused (stripped of the tragic overtones) in Richard Kwientowski’s Life and Death on Long Island (UK/Canada, 1997). In this loose adaptation, a mature and very British writer succumbs to his fascination with a trashy B-movie actor and ends up away from home, amidst the alienating plastic paradise of America. The protagonist does not return, but his staying does not become a source of tragic feelings. In the course of the film we are clearly shown that the place where he ‘belongs’ (a prejudiced and paternalistic Europe) is as problematic as the one where he has ‘ended up’ (a vulgar and shallow America). As soon as the narrative locations are exposed as equally alienating, the hierarchy of places is subverted and any firm ‘belonging’ can (and does) become conditional and relative.
In earlier films we often would see a protagonist who turns into tragic character because of his inability or unwillingness to leave the peripheral place where he has ended up. The ending of Handful of Dust (Charles Sturridge, UK, 1988), for example, based on Evelyn Waugh’s novel, was supposed to be seen as sad and absurd. Here, the British protagonist was never able to return where he belonged, because he could not get out of the African village where he had let himself become involved in a weird situation reminiscent of slavery. In Under the Volcano (John Huston, USA, 1984), based on Malcolm Lowry’s novel, another Briton, the consul to Oaxaca, grew to a tragic character due to his inability to overcome an alcohol addiction and leave.
Nowadays, however, it becomes increasingly problematic to postulate a location as a place where one belongs and where one ought to return. The ‘ex-pats’ of recent films have ended up away from ‘home’ for a variety of reasons, but they are clear about the relativity of ‘home’. ‘Leaving’ and ‘returning’ is no longer an obligatory part of the plan. Why would the place where they theoretically ‘belong’ have more legitimacy than the one where they ‘are.’ The young Frenchman in Gadjo Dilo (Tony Gatlif, France, 1997) methodically records samples of Romanian Gypsy folklore to take back to Paris when he leaves. But near the end, in an impulsive gesture that asserts the conditionality of return, he burns all the tapes and remains where he is, in the forlorn lands of Vallacchia. The British journalist in Chinese Box (Wayne Wang, France/Japan/USA, 1997) is diagnosed with a terminal illness but does consider returning, and dies six months later on a ferry while crossing from Kowloon to Tsim Sha Tsui. The Italian architect in Hamam – Il bagno turco/ Hamam – The Turkish Bath (Ferzan Oztepek, Italy, 1997) goes down to Istanbul unwillingly, with the intention to hastily dispose of an unwanted inheritance, but never returns, falling under the spell of the Bosphorus breeze.
In L’autre coté de la mer/ The Other Shore (Dominique Cabrera, France, 1997), an old Frenchman who stayed in Algeria after the colonial period, has returned home for surgery. During his sojourn in France he befriends a young doctor of Algerian extraction, an ‘uprooted’ beur. At the end of the film, each one of them will choose the ‘other’ side – the beur will stay in Paris, and the pied noir will return to the Maghreb. In La Frontera (Ricardo Larrain, Chile, 1991) the protagonist is interned at the very edge of the continent, a nightmarish place drenched in water. But by the time he is allowed to return, he no longer wants to go back, having thoroughly reexamined his allegiances.
The problematic ‘belonging’ to a place, the impossibility to return, is brought to its absurd extreme in Bombay Boys (Kaizad Gustad, India, 1998). Here, a bunch of diasporic Indian protagonists, coming respectively from America, England and Australia, ‘return’ to their ‘home’ country of India, to face a serious culture shock. The black American who has returned to Africa in Claire Denis’ Chocolat (France, 1988) faces the same disillusionment with the revered idea of ‘home.’
As long as there is no place where one clearly ‘belongs,’ no return is possible. The preoccupation with linking identity to a place is no longer a Western prerogative, however. It is a message that is found in films made all over the world. These films consistently undermine the traditional concept of ‘displacement,’ one that depends on the linking of identity to a place. Here the impossibility of return is no longer tragic because the hierarchy of place is radically denied.
Place as a leading narrative element
Until recently, the place of the narrative was equally important to the moves of the protagonists only in the work of a selected few high-profile filmmakers, such as Wim Wenders or Jim Jarmush. Wenders made location a narrative element in his early films such as Alice in den Städten/Alice in the Cities (Germany, 1974), and maintained a narration defined by the place through Paris, Texas (Germany/France, 1984), Der Himmel über Berlin/Wings of Desire (Germany, 1987) to Lisbon Story (Germany/Portugal, 1994). Jim Jarmush let Memphis, the location of the film’s events, define the narrative in his Mystery Train (USA/Japan, 1989). Places ultimately defined the stories that happened to the five taxi drivers around the world, from New York to Helsinki, in his Night on Earth (USA/Japan/Germany/France, 1991).
More recently, however, diverse filmmakers are making the location a leading narrative element in their films. These films evolve around the premise, rarely spelled out but clearly articulated in images and action, that places and protagonists mutually define each other. Take the fascination of European directors with films set in America’s SouthWest – from Finish Aki Kaurismäki’s Leningrad Cowboys Go America (Finland/Sweden, 1989) to Yugoslav Emir Kusturica’s Arizona Dream (1993). The wonderfully weird people in these films are a function of the isolated and thus specifically exotic places they inhabit. Some of these places come across as extremely fascinating, particularly to Europeans who seem to believe that the superbly rough and unrefined nature is the shaping force of a specific brand of tempestuous and rough people (which they populate their films with). This is seen best in recent Spanish productions of a cult standing, such as Atolladero (Oscar Aibar, 1995) and Perdita Durango (Alex de la Iglesia, 1997). Both are set around the US-Mexican border, both are extremely violent, and both are inhabited by excitingly extreme, oversexed and improbable protagonists, who can only be imagined thriving there, alongside la frontera around places like Ciudad Juárez or Tijuana.
In other films, a mere longing for a place defines the narrative. Here a vivid mental image of a particular location becomes the driving force behind the moves of the protagonists. In Floating Life (Clara Law, Australia, 1996) the Hong Kong family is shown dispersing all over – from Australia to Canada and Germany – in anticipation of the insecurities associated with the impending 1997 hand-over. The terminally-ill-Hong-Kong imaginary has created a sense of urgency that makes the protagonists undertake voyages they are not sure they want to go on, and to experience themselves lonely and insecure, hanging onto a bag of fragrant tea or a photograph of a village house. The female protagonist of Mississippi Masala (Mira Nair, USA, 1991) is an Indian from Uganda whose family had been forced to migrate to the US by Idi Amin Dada’s regime. Born and raised in Africa, she has never been to her imaginary homeland of India. Her boyfriend, an African-American, is dreaming for another imaginary homeland – Africa. To him the Indian girl, herself longing for India, is an embodiment of Africa, a place he himself is longing for. In Wong Kar-Wai’s Cheun gwong tsa sit/Happy Together (Hong Kong, 1997) Hong Kong gay men in Buenos Aires are longing for the Iguazu falls down South in Argentina.
In current filmmaking, there is a strongly pronounced interest in places that are specifically marginal or peripheral (even though not necessarily remote). The examples are so many that a listing will easily overwhelm. The place that is in the center of interest of such films is usually constructed via a modified travelogue narrative involving a protagonist who comes from a radically different place. In Out of Rosenheim/Baghdad Café (Percy Adlon, Germany, 1988) an Austrian auntie interacted with black and native Americans, Mexicans, and a Russian in the Mojave desert. In the Icelandic Á köldum klaka/Cold Fever, (Fridrik Thor Fridrikssen, Iceland, 1994) a Japanese protagonist wandered through the frozen landscape in search for a place to perform a traditional Japanese Buddhist ceremony for his parents who had died in a plane crash over the island. In Genghis Blues (Roko Belic, USA, 1998) a blind blues musician of Cape Verdean extraction living in San Francisco traveled to the Siberian steppes in the far East of the former Soviet Union to experience the traditional singing of the Tuvas. In När Finbar försvann/The Disappearance of Finbar (Sue Clayton, Ireland/Sweden/UK, 1996) the Irish protagonist followed leads that took him to Lapland in the far north of Sweden, where, searching for his lost friend Finbar he ended up in a dive called Finn Bar.
These unusual displays of unlikely combinations of people and places become the building blocks of a visual inventory for a new cinematic reality. A new brand of multiculturalism comes into being, one that is defined by the place as a site of possible transnational interaction.
Periphery to periphery: a universe with no need of a center
The migrating protagonists, whom we encounter so often in the cinema of the 1990s, take off from one peripheral place to end up in another periphery. The movement is no longer one that begins with a liberating escape from a restrictive marginal environment and ends with a triumphant settling into whatever is perceived to be the socially or geographically desirable center. More and more films show characters who move within a periphery and who interact between themselves without being upwardly mobile. While on the move, the migrants, dispossessed and marginalized, encounter people who have stayed in one place forever but are equally marginal and dispossessed. Such encounters help the protagonists of either group to come to terms with their own inferiority and allow them to dare imagining themselves as subjects of new fulfilling experiences. They are seen interacting and bonding in ways that are mutually empowering, in a restricted but nonetheless gratifying way.
New immigrants are shown mixing with members of the local ethnic groups and with sexual minorities. In My Father is Coming (Monica Treut, Germany, 1991), set in New York, a young German aspiring actress who makes a living as a waitress and shares a flat with a gay friend, falls in love with a recent transsexual. In J’ai pas sommeil/I Can’t Sleep (Claire Denis, France/Switzerland, 1994), set in Paris, a Lithuanian immigrant ends up involved with a mulatto musician and his transvestite brother. In Tudja Amerika/Someone Else’s America (Goran Paskaljevic, France/UK/Germany/Greece, 1995), the Montenegrin immigrant’s son marries a Chinese-American, and at the wedding they all dance flamenco under the accompaniment of a Basque friend. In Broken English (Gregor Nicholas, New Zealand, 1996) a young Croatian immigrant to New Zealand falls in love with a Maori teenager while secretly marrying an illegal Chinese to help him immigrate. In Western (Manuel Poirier, France, 1997) Nino, a sensitive ‘Russian from Italy’ as he describes himself, hitchhikes around the French countryside alongside a displaced Spaniard from Catalonia, both ostracized, both speaking in heavily accented French. They soon find friends -a Cote d’Ivoire-born inhabitant of Brittany, and a single mother of seven.
The metropolitan slums (as in Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 La Haine/Hate) and the sleepy provincial towns (as in Bruno Dumont’s 1997 La vie de Jesus), depressing places that would drive anyone to get out of as soon as possible, are now turning into territories of lively exchanges. It is probably best seen in European cinema, where we can even speak of a whole new genre of films, all set among a multicultural group of young people who all come and go. We see it in films set in cities that are still struggling to acknowledge their multicultural side, like Vienna (as in Barbara Albert’s Nordrand/ Northern Skirts, 1999), Copenhagen (as in Nicholas Winding Refn Bleeder, 1999), Altona (as in Fatih Akin’s Kurz und schmerzlos/Short Sharp Shock, 1997), or Stockholm (in a range of recent Swedish films). These films define the cinematic image of the new urban periphery, created by the dynamic forces of global economy, as described by sociologist Saskia Sassen.
There is no need of a conditional center to determine a hierarchy of values and strives, no need to make oneself stretch out to reach a higher, superior level. Most interactions do not gravitate toward a higher point but remain within the same periphery, with no gradation – like it often is in reality, without ascendance to the imaginary higher levels familiar from traditional narratives. Margins no longer exist provided there is no center.
Beyond the national and the regional: what approach?
It is important to stress that the films that treat place and itinerary with increased attention are not strictly linked to a particular national or regional cinematic tradition. Directors working independently from each other in different corners of the world make them. But scholarship still evolves within the frameworks of ‘national’ or ‘regional,’ and we see studies on beur cinema in France, or on Turkish immigrant film in the German speaking countries, or on Black British cinema. Rarely would film scholars look across the board and discover trends that are characteristic for all of them. Even the study of ‘transnational’ cinema leaves out many of the films I mentioned, as they fall outside what legitimately counts as ‘transnational’ works.
To study the multifaceted phenomenon of the expanding universe in cinema requires an approach that would take into consideration a whole complex set of diverse factors and processes – a variety of film texts of different genres, languages, and styles, as well as a variety of channels that these are being distributed through, and a variety of reception patterns. A suitable approach would need to defeat the national-regional framework and make a convincing case for a comprehensive global outlook to cinema. To work really meaningfully, such methodology would need to bring together communication and film studies proper with anthropology of consumption, sociology of diasporas, alternative media studies, and multiculturalism. Traditional research paradigms, like political economy or ethnographic audience studies, touch only on some of these aspects.
The established comparative strategies cannot catch these dynamics, as they are rooted in regionalism and rely on comparing firmly defined entities. The dynamics of the expanding universe, however, do not exist as such within the national and the regional. Their significance is visible only beyond the strictly defined ‘cultural spheres.’ To see them, we can no longer be content with looking at the films produced within one national cinema or even region. Until such wider outlook is established, it may remain difficult to talk of international trends, as it will take some time until mainstream distribution and exhibition start reflecting them. The shifting politics of place and itinerary is visible only to those who are especially willing to look for it, to the international film critics and the programmers of art-house operations and festivals, but their modus operandi remains entrenched within the categories of the national and the regional.
Studies by Gilroy on diaspora (1993), Shohat and Stam on Eurocentrism (1994), and Appadurai on migration and mediation (1997) are milestones in the formation of the new strategy for understanding representations of place and journeying. Unthinking Eurocentrism (1994) insisted that the entrenched Eurocentric construct needed to be defeated in favor of a multicultural education. In their book, Shohat and Stam approached the task of defeating the Eurocentrc by critically dissecting mainstream Western representations of the exotic and the foreign, and thus invited the recognition of multiple culturally significant worlds. We are still, however, to see a study that would tackle these same issues the other way around. Such a study should critically construct a mediatic universe that takes off from the periphery and brings into the spotlight the abundant but still unarticulated evidence of rejected Eurocentrism present in a large number of recent works of international cinema. The work on diaspora (Gilroy, Appiah), transnational cinema (Naficy), and globalization (Appadurai) is also of critical importance within such project.
A growing body of writings in film, cultural, and critical studies are directly relevant to what is to be accomplished. Studies that looked into Third world cinemas (Armes, 1987; Downing, 1987) first drew the attention to the dynamics of international film. In the 1990s, a number of edited volumes (Friedman, 1991; Naficy and Gabriel, 1993; Martin, 1995; Sherzer, 1996; Bernstein and Studlar, 1997; Naficy, 1998; Naficy 2001; Ong 1999; Sassen 2000) focused on international cultural production dealing with the cross-cultural construction of place, journeying, and border-crossing. They have explored the effects that certain cinematic texts have had on the respective diasporic cultures, distribution channels, consumption and reception patterns. None of the existing studies, however, has offered a framework allowing to keep into account the interactions between the global cinematic output, the ever-changing diasporas and their representations. The most that has been accomplished has been to take up one channel of cross-cultural activity (production, distribution, and reception) and study it in detail. What is yet to be done is to find a way to track down the expanding universe as it is revealed in the interactions between various communities and the ways these interactions are represented in films about place and itinerary.
I cannot help seeing the subtle and gradual expansion all over, in the events and the films that I am exposed to every day. No denial, it is due to a big extent to my own lifestyle. An émigré Bulgarian and a naturalized Canadian, for the past decade I have lived on the island of Newfoundland, in bilingual Ottawa, then in Austin, Texas, in Chicagoland, on the shores of lake Michigan, and in Toronto, on the shores of lake Ontario. Now working in a provincial city in the English Midlands, I spend my days in an old Victorian house watching the British rain chatter outside my window. But this decidedly English city has a huge Indian neighborhood, and one can rent Indian videos at over 200 places in town. The walls of the local Indian restaurants and shops are all covered in photographs featuring stars like Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan during their visits here. My son, who is going to the neighborhood British school, plays there with boys of Syrian, Brazilian and Malaysian ancestry. In addition, my seemingly sedentary job involves talking to people in over twenty countries on a daily basis, and occasionally takes me to places like rushing Hong Kong or sun-burnt Palestine. This essay I am writing sitting in a friend’s house in the Greek neighborhood in Toronto, where I am catching up on the new foreign video releases for the year, all available at the nearby specialized video store. The neighborhood library carries films in Mandarin and Hindi, and in the vicinity here there are video stores renting Filipino, Thai and Greek films.
It is not necessary to move around all the time like myself to see that distant places and journeying has become part of our daily lives and to realize that the world is not the simple sum of its places but the subtle dynamics in-between.
The expanding universe of mixing parallel worlds claims a subtle presence within the public discourse. It is not only in filmmakers’ minds, however. Gradually it reaches out to audiences as well. I witnessed this most powerfully myself in the fall of 1997. On a rainy night I entered a Blockbuster store in downtown Seattle, and could not believe my eyes: the wall opposite the entrance, the best display space in the store, carried the inscription ‘Hot New Foreign Films.’ It featured mostly new releases, all films that in one way or another relied on narratives that explored people who were either on the move or had ended up in faraway places. There were films about a Hong Kong film star’s encounter with an inferiority-complex-ridden bunch of Parisian filmmakers (Assayas’ Irma Vep, France, 1996) and about an exiled Greek-American director travelling across the troubled Balkan lands (Angelopoulos’ Uysses Gaze, Greece, 1995). There were films by globetrotters like Wim Wenders (Aufzeichnungen zu Kleidern und Städten/ Notebook of Cities and Clothes, Germany, 1989) and Peter Greenaway (Pillow Book, France/UK/Netherlands, 1996), both evolving in locations like Japan and Hong Kong. But then, apart from this art house ‘foreign’ film stuff, the display carried mainstream titles which, I only realized now, were equally preoccupied with migrations and journeying, and which were also bringing together unlikely people in improbable places. There was the Oscar-winning English Patient (Anthony Minghella, USA, 1996) – what more mainstream than that? – based on a novel by a Sri-Lankan-Canadian writer, a film that brought together Hungarians, Arabs, Sikhs, and Germans, and was set in North Africa and provincial Italy. Right next to it was the Oscar-winning Piano (Jane Campion, Australia/New Zealand, 1993) – what more mainstream than that? – a film that brought together a mute British protagonist with a Maori métis in the desolate forests of New Zealand. The importance of place and itinerary, it seemed, was becoming increasingly recognized also by filmmakers operating with hefty budgets and good-sized audiences.
How commercially viable was this display from the point of view of the Blockbuster corporation? For how long would they allow the manager of this store to test extravagant fantasies strikingly incompatible with the principles of no-nonsense-profit-making? I would not dare guessing. But it is a fact that a whole universe of cinematic places, itineraries, and protagonists was there, on this artsy strip downtown Seattle, on display at Blockbuster. And, of course, Blockbuster was only part of the ‘place.’ It was near Borders with their growing foreign film section, and next door to the Tex-Mex cantina, the condom parlor, the Tibetan restaurant and the sushi bar. It all looked like an enlarged new age replica of the shady groceries where ethnic foodstuffs and herbal cures share the shelves with clandestine videos from faraway countries. The ‘displaced’ was claiming place for itself.
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