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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§ 6 Responses to The problem with ‘world cinema’

  • Paul, I enjoyed reading your article. It is indeed upsetting that the use of certain words or expressions seem to continue ‘orientalising’ certain cultures. Of course, this is not only the case of Asian films–however the term ‘far east’ indeed provides a more exotic glance–but also with regards to ‘other’ cultures.
    I agree with your critique of the ‘assertion of superiority’, nevertheless, I think it is a European or ‘first-world’ assertion. This is then copied to other cultures, for in Latin America we also see ‘world’ cinema as so different, strange maybe, and full of ‘local colour’–at the same time our cinema is also part of that group.
    There is an interesting challenge, though, for us Latin Americanists in general, and especially if one is Latin American. We are still undefined, since we are still part of those ‘others’, but at the same time we belong to what is considered the Western World when it comes to politics and economy, particularly if we focus on Chile, perhaps our societies in the whole can be ‘western-like’, but the individual remains more or less ‘other’. In my personal experience, I have never felt more unsettled than when applying for a PhD in two UK universities I had to indicate my ‘ethnic origin’. None of the categories listed actually said anything that I felt was more or less what I consider I am. I was forced to select the ‘other’ option. Therefore, in both applications I am the ‘other’ with regards to my origins.

    I ended up mentioning something not quite related to your article, but the terminology in general, with regards to arts and culture, tends to create new marginalisations and show that the issues are still there, and if some are the ones that define what ‘world’ cinema is, well, we are still under the hegemony of a given type of discourse, that is not so hard to see.

    Cheers, Barbara.

    • paulmerchant says:

      Hi Barbara,

      Thanks for your comment. You’re absolutely right: I was writing very much from a UK perspective, as the label ‘world cinema’ tends to be applied here to films not from the US or Europe. Latin American films are definitely classed as ‘world’ cinema! In that sense Latin America isn’t allowed a place in the ‘west’ as defined from here or the US. It’s sad to know that that process of othering can be felt even in PhD applications…


  • Thanks for this Paul – I’ve often felt that it’s a bit odd to lump such a wide variety of films together as ‘world cinema’ but I’d never really taken the time to think about it properly.


  • A nicely written piece, Paul, that raises some really interesting questions! I enjoyed reading. Thanks for posting!

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