In the context of incessant war and war-rhetoric, state-sanctioned torture, refugee crises, fear of terrorism, and increasing animosity toward immigrants and those deemed to be foreigners, teaching international – and specifically transnational – cinema can be crucial to disclosing and resisting global violence. But why transnational cinema in particular? The editors of Teaching Transnational Cinema: Politics and Pedagogy define transnational as “transformations in advanced capitalist societies that reconfigure traditional boundaries of national economies, identities, and cultures.” Reflecting on such films as Angela Maccarone’s Unveiled (2005, Germany), Atom Egoyan’s Ararat (2002, France), Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008, UK), and Michael Haneke’s Caché (2005, France/Austria), the contributors to this anthology – nearly all of whom have instructed cinema courses – reflect on the pedagogical, theoretical and personal challenges of teaching such films. The book is divided into three parts: “Seeing ‘the world’ through film”, “Transnational Encounters” and “Transnational Aporias”. A central question posed by the editors is how can we ethically use the figure of the foreigner in teaching transnational film and media. While this book directly addresses a very specific venue—namely the transnational cinema classroom—the application of its call for accountability and openness is productive not only for all academic disciplines, but also in all encounters with transnational art.
Editors Katarzyna Marciniak (Professor of Transnational Studies at Ohio State University), and Bruce Bennett (Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts), identify the book more as “a set of reflections” than a teaching manual (p. 30), though many of the essays offer specific teaching strategies and materials, including a joint-manifesto from film studies professor Terri Ginsberg and producer Tania Kamal-Eldin, and distinct assignments such as those offered in Matthew Holtmeier and Chelsea Wessels’ piece “Understanding Context, Resisting Hermeneutics: Ways of Seeing Transnational Relations.” Some contributors, such as Mette Hjort, propose a “performative model of transnational film pedagogy” (p. 167), which includes filmmaking as part of the theoretical analysis of transnational film.
The book begins with Bennett’s essay “Ignorance and Inequality: Teaching with Transnational Cinema”. Bennett’s analysis of student expectations as a kind of consumerism in the film Surviving Desire opens generative questions regarding the responsibilities and incommensurables always at play in the classroom. In particular, the piece highlights the devaluing and misrecognition of open questions by consumerism – as opposed to the containability and possessability of answers. Bennett argues that film itself should be presented as an open question rather than an answer or a site from which contained and specific answers can be excavated. He refers to the difference between “cues”, which are “carefully plotted” and “suggestive”, and “mandates”, which are “elliptical, incoherent, open”. (p. 55) This skewing of the fixed parameters of spectator and film is tied to an increased sense of accountability and agency for students – a notion echoed throughout the book. The themes of responsibility and disidentification, “which may be understood as the process by which subjects are moved to acknowledge and question the problematic aspects of their identities” (p. 62), are championed throughout the text, encouraging a pedagogical process that, in line with the concept developed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in Capitalism and Schizophrenia, is more rhizomatic than hierarchical and fixed, allowing for heterogeneous and non-hierarchical multiplicities. The incommensurability of film, and one’s knowledge of cinema and of the foreigner, is expressed in Aga Skrodzka’s piece “Disempowering Knowledge: How to Teach Not to Help”, in which she proposes electing “not to know” and “to accept insurmountable barriers in knowledge-transfer”. (p. 237) In a world where corporate-endowed foundations lead many global humanitarian efforts, and in which powerful ideological operations can heroise and marginalise certain ideas, Skrodzka proposes a pedagogy that resists the dominant humanitarian and philanthropic discourses. Her essay proposes a pedagogy that resists not only the impulse for identification in the act of watching films, but also the “narrativising impulse”. (p. 242) In his essay “Pedagogy and Personal Transformation through Transnational Film”, Laurence Raw notes the use of the Internet, and specifically social media, to blur lines between formal and informal “academic encounters”. (p. 187) This destabilisation of what constitutes a formal classroom or space of film analysis gestures toward virtual, more independent and less regulated possibilities for film scholarship.
The transnational element of this text is particularly emphasized when placed in the context of neoliberalism. The latter comes up in this book quite often, particularly in relation to diversity, commodification and the contemporary culture and politics of humanitarianism. As gender studies scholar Rachel Lewis notes in her piece “Transnational Lesbian Cinema in the Women’s and Gender Studies Classroom: Beyond Neoliberal Imaginaries of Desire?”, pedagogy can directly impact social and political policies – increasing the sense of accountability of scholars in a transnational cinema course. One of the primary criticisms of the “liberal, humanist thrust” comes from Áine O’Healy. In her piece “‘Grateful to be American’: The Challenges of Teaching Transnational Documentaries”, she notes the popular humanist lens tends to focus on “mechanisms of viewer-identification” and commonality rather than difference. It seems this book strives to counter and complicate what Skrodzka calls the co-opting of transnational studies by American universities—while also operating within those very universities. Thus, the editors state they are interested in an “ethical openness” – one that does not commit violence through its encounters with the foreign and transnational. They write, “The goal is to destabilize students’ ways of seeing the world.” (p. 24) This destabilisation and scrutiny of the positionality of the spectator/student is offered as crucial to transnational cinema pedagogy. For O’Healy, this unlearning includes students taking note of their immediate and habitual reactions and opinions, many of which she articulates in her essay.
In “A Pedagogy of Humility: Teaching European Films About Immigration”, Alex Lykidis examines contemporary European anti-immigrant sentiments, and cites Marciniak’s previous work in stating the dangers of employing mechanisms of identification in transnational cinema. Lykidis sums up what seems to be one of the primary thrusts of this text; namely, to disclose “pedagogical strategies […] that foreground rather than occlude the ethical responsibilities of spectators,” as well as to illuminate the responsibilities themselves. He proposes disidentification as a productive destabilisation of mechanisms of identification. To reveal the spectator’s implication in various registers of violence, Lykidis explores what he calls “spectatorial positions of privilege and culpability,” describing mechanisms of identification as “violent” and “self-congratulatory.” He proposes a “pedagogy of humility”, which seems to include a disclosure and destabilisation of the privilege and entitlement of the spectator, in part through taking more time with each film.
One important insight the book provides, in terms of the scope of transnational cinema analysis, is to take into consideration the global socioeconomic role of film production, including sources of funding and distribution. In “Altered States for a Critical Cosmopolitanism”, Anita Wen-Shin Chang calls these factors part of the “political economy” of films, and notes that they are often overlooked in transnational cinema classroom analysis.
The book also contains an essay from Ruth Doughty and Deborah Shaw, co-editors of the journal “Transnational Cinemas,” in which, like Chang, they explicitly identify their own positions as authors and teachers. This marking of one’s own place in relation to “the other” and in relation to the hidden workings of existing hierarchies cultivates a pedagogy that arrives at a more developed understanding of what we – students, teachers and spectators – do not know. This emphasis on not-knowing is a refreshing one, particularly for a text meant to serve academic institutions that all too often peddle totalising mastery.
One of the more interesting chapters in the book is Bhaskar Sarkar’s piece, “The Pedagogy of the Piratical”. While not thoroughly exploring the repercussions for artists (economic or otherwise), Sarkar presents a strong case for the indeterminate and generative zone of piracy for spectators/audience members. He notes that piracy can challenge “hegemonic sovereignties”, and that copyright can operate as a kind of closure – perhaps even a violence toward other possibilities. But his most interesting point is the observation regarding hierarchies that dictate when and by whom piracy is condoned or condemned, such that some acts of piracy are deemed to be “intrinsically progressive” while others, occuring primarily in non-Western regions, are condemned.
Another particularly interesting piece is Marciniak’s essay “The Disappearing Classroom: Streaming Foreigners and a Politics of Invisibility”, a reflection on teaching transnational cinema in the virtual classroom. Studying the impact of foreignness between individuals in the classroom and between scholars and transnational film, Marciniak explores the politics of the question “where are you from?”, an inquiry she has personally experienced throughout her academic career. She notes that “online education […] offers a possibility of shielding”, providing a space of possibilities and a destabilisation of the hierarchies manifested in in-person classroom encounters. As more classrooms, and even the entirety of some institutions, become virtual, Marciniak observes that the concealment of such things as immigrant accents or race allows for film studies to operate in a possibly more shielded environment for students and teachers. This shielding can collapse or occlude some of the explicit markers of otherness that may lead to assumptions or a demand for totalising answers, which can undermine a more generative not-knowing.
While the main crux of this text involves encounters with transnational cinema, and specifically how to ethically and non-violently facilitate these encounters in a classroom, Marciniak and Bennett’s book can be used as a generative destabilisation of assumptions about “the other”, about the containability of knowledge-transfer, and about spectatorship in general. Moreover, the reflections offered in the book draw attention to one’s relationship with oneself – a critical and ongoing reflection for any pedagogical or artistic experience.
Katarzyna Marciniak and Bruce Bennett, Teaching Transnational Cinema: Politics and Pedagogy (AFI Film Readers) (New York: Routledge, 2016).