The problem with ‘world cinema’

March 23, 2014 § 6 Comments

the rocket

So that things are clear: I will yield to no one in my love for the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse. It’s a great cinema with a really good mix of commercial and arthouse films, and has a brilliant student membership scheme (and a bar!). I was one of the more than 15,000 people to sign a petition protesting at the Competition Comission’s decision to force Cineworld to sell it off. I don’t know what the outcome of that process was, by the way, but for the moment the Picturehouse is still with us.

All that said, a page on their website raised my hackles the other week. It was the description of a film from Laos called The Rocket, which, the Picturehouse tells us, is ‘a feel-good world cinema treat’, and ‘shot through with vibrant local colour’. Both of those phrases are, for me, indicative of a worrying attitude to foreign film productions.

‘World cinema’, in much the same way as ‘world music’, most often seems to denote non-Western cultural production, and as a result, creates a kind of us-and-them approach to cinema where, bizarrely, Anglo Saxon productions are not seen to belong to the ‘world’. It is an apparently meaningless phrase which hides, I think, a fetishisation of what is seen to be ‘exotic’. An assertion of superiority, in other words.

The conversion of ‘local colour’ into a marketable commodity is perhaps even stranger. The transnational nature of cinema makes this inevitable, of course, and I am glad that a film from Laos can be seen in the UK. And not having seen The Rocket, I don’t want to suggest that is guilty of what some films in the ‘world cinema’ category, such as Fernando Meirelles’ City of God, have been accused of: offering a glamourised version of severe hardship as ‘local colour’ to the international market.

The reason the phrase ‘local colour’ unsettles me is because it reminds me of a rather surreal experience I had in Malaysia in September of last year. I was in Malacca, a fascinating old city, by myself for a few days. There are plenty of historical and cultural sights on offer, but one day, after a busy morning of museums and ruins (and two weeks of travelling prior to that), I decided to go to the cinema.

The cinema was to be found in an enormous shopping mall just beyond Malacca’s historic centre. Wherever I’ve seen them, these super-malls seem to have the same design: several floors of shops, with a food court and then a multiplex cinema on top (I imagine the blueprint is probably from the US). The food court in this one is what I found particularly strange and sad.

Malaysia is justly famous for its street food. My favourite thing about visiting the country was, without doubt,  trying the huge array of dishes available, usually for about 80p, from makeshift stands in places like Malacca and George Town. In this mall, the food court was designed to resemble one of these street markets, complete with mocked-up stalls made from moulded plastic. Needless to say, the prices were rather higher than in the real-life equivalent, there were fewer people, and it was all, for want of a better phrase, much more boring.

It is this co-option of  tradition into bland international culture that is in a sense lurking behind the ‘vibrant local colour’ of ‘world cinema’. It probably has to happen, to an extent, for traditions and local particularities to survive. But I wonder if abandoning that particular terminology might not be more helpful.

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