New Book: Cinema at the Periphery (2010)

April 24, 2010 at 12:47 am

A long time in the making, “Cinema at the Periphery is finally out, published by Wayne State University Press in Detroit as part of their series on Contemporary Approaches to Film and Television, under the general editorship of Barry Keith Grant.

Our idea for this project was to explore marginal cinemas from around the world by bringing them together in a comparative perspective. Because, as we see from Iceland to Iran and from Singapore to Scotland, a growing intellectual and cultural wave of production is taking cinema beyond the borders of its place of origin and ventures into exploring faraway places, interacting with barely known peoples, and making new localities imaginable. In an array of films that are made in the context of these traditions, previously entrenched spatial divisions no longer function as firmly fixed grid coordinates, the hierarchical position of place as “center” is subverted, and new forms of representation become possible. Thus, for the project Cinema at the Periphery (first a conference in 2006 and now finally a book), we assembled criticism that explored issues of the periphery, including questions of transnationality, place, space, passage, and migration. The brief to the contributors was to examine the periphery in terms of locations, practices, methods, and themes. The volume includes geographic case studies of small national cinemas located at the global margins, like New Zealand, Denmark or Scotland, but also of filmmaking that comes from peripheral cultures, like Palestinian “stateless” cinema, Celtic-language film, Australian Aboriginal films, and cinema from Quebec. Therefore, the volume is divided into two key areas: industries and markets on the one hand, and identities and histories on the other. Yet as a whole, the project is to illustrate that the concept of “periphery” is not fixed but is always changing according to patterns of industry, ideology, and taste. Most importantly, however, Cinema at the Periphery proposes a workable approach that allows us to link the inextricable interrelationship that exists between production modes and circulation channels and the emerging narratives of histories and identities they enable. It includes some really important writing by leading authors in the field of transnational film studies.

Let me take the opportunity and make an important link here. Back in June 2006, at the inaugural conference that marked the beginning of this project, we recorded the presentations of many of our guests and made them available on-line. Some of these, like Faye Ginsburg (NYU), Mette Hjort (Lingnan), Patricial Pisters (Amsterdam), Sheldon Lu (Santa Barbara), Laura Marks (Simon Fraser), Bill Marshall (Stirling), and Duncan Petrie’s (York) talks became the basis of chapters in the current book. Others, like Dudley Andrew (Yale), John Caughie (Glasgow), Pam Cook (Southampton), Hamid Naficy (Northwestern), Rod Stoneman (Huston Film School), Kristian Feigelson (Paris), published their work elsewhere. While still others, like Lucia Nagib (Leeds), opted to participate in the book but by presenting us with texts on topics that differed from those that they presented. We also commissioned several essays that were added to the two parts of the volume (Industry and Ideology). These included contributions by all three of us — myself and David Martin-Jones (both still at the University of St. Andrews) and Belén Vidal (who since moved to take up a job at King’s College in London) — who acted as editors of the collection. We also included a specially commissioned piece by Kay Dickinson (Goldsmiths) (on Palestinian cinema in an international context). Back then, a number of reviews of the event appeared in the film press. Here is a link to the one published in Senses of Cinema.

Reviews of the book are still to materialise, and I would be most excited to see this volume reviewed internationally, at the periphery and in those locations whose cinematic cultures we aimed to discuss (e.g. Spain, Quebec, Denmark, Brazil, Morocco, New Zealand, Australia, China, Palestine, and others). If you are writing for the film journals in these (or other peripheral) countries, where there is likely to encounter particular interest to the writing included in the volume, for review copies, please be in touch with the Press’s coordinator Sarah Murphy at murphysa@wayne.edu. For the time being, we only have Ruby Rich’s lines that describe the book as a ‘collection of reflections that challenge conventional definitions of national film cultures’ that we can quote.

New Book Announcement: Moving People, Moving Images

March 12, 2010 at 4:50 am

Co-written with my colleagues William Brown and Leshu Torchin, Moving People, Moving Images: Cinema and Trafficking in the New Europe is the first title in our new series on Cinema and Transnational Discourse (St Andrews Film Studies, 2010). The next title planned for the series will look into the wide range of cinematic representations of international terrorism in cinema.

We hope to find a wide exposure for this volume, far beyond the narrow film studies field (it is no accident that this was also the best-selling title of all the books we introduced at the recent multiple book launch event at the BFI Filmstore on Southbank in London). It is a volume on the representation of human trafficking in international cinema, and even though it is a ‘film studies’ work, we believe it is really of interest to much wider circles as these are matters of immediate concern to social workers, migration specialists and activists. The book discusses a range of films, both feature and documentary, reflecting the situation with human trafficking in a great variety of countries — from Turkey to Sweden, from Sri Lanka to Greece, from Serbia to Italy, from North Africa to Spain, and so on.

ISBN (13): 978-1-9066-7803-6 (paperback)
180pp.
Price £17.99 (UK), $29.00 (US)
Available for purchase by clicking through to St. Andrews Film Studies bookshop

The volume is divided in three parts, which include respectively general essays; close analysis of fifteen important international films on trafficking; commentary on the political aspects of the usage of these films in the context of activism.

Here is a more detailed Table of Contents

PART ONE. Landscapes
William Brown – Negotiating the Invisible
Leshu Torchin – Foreign Exchange
Dina Iordanova – Making Traffic Visible, Adjusting the Narrative

PART TWO: Close-Ups

In-depth analyses of The Bus (Turkey/Sweden, Tunc Okan), The Guardian Angel (Yugoslavia, Goran Paskaljevic), When Mother Comes Home for Christmas(Greece/India/Germany, Nilita Vachani), Wesh wesh, qu’est-ce qui se passe? (France, rabah Ameur-Zaimeche), Poniente (Spain, Chus Gutierrez), Spare Parts (Slovenia, Damjan Kozole), Promised Land (Israel/France, Amos Gitai), Ghosts (UK, Nick Broomfield), It’s a Free World… (UK, Ken Loach), Import/Export (Austria, Ulrich Seidl), Love on Delivery and Ticket to Paradise (Denmark), The Silence of Lorna (Belgium, Dardenne Brothers) and Taken (France, Pierre Morel).

Part THREE: Traffic Jam
Film, Activism, and Human Trafficking

Excerpts of reviews:

Moving People, Moving Images tackles human trafficking, one of the most serious consequences of the massive movement of people enabled by post-Wall processes of economic and cultural globalization in Europe. While immigration, migration, exile, and the illegal movement of people have been the subject of much work in film and media studies recently, few volumes would take such a bold stand in favour of the possibility of filmic activism. One of the attractions of this book is precisely that it refuses to tread lightly and tentatively across the well-established divide between cinematic representations and socio-political issues. It makes a provocative argument for the political effect of films and proposes that human trafficking should not be the rightful, let alone the exclusive, domain of governments, NGOs, activist organizations and the social sciences.
– Aniko Imre, University of Southern California

Moving People, Moving Images is a groundbreaking and much-needed study of the intersections between film and human trafficking. Through a sophisticated and versatile approach, and against the backdrop of theories of economic globalisation, transnationalism, post-colonialism, identity and modernity, it offers a theorisation of human trafficking that engages with a range of published work on social and critical theory as well as on film studies…. This volume is both a complete and valuable teaching tool, and a precious resource for future research, and sets the agenda for more work in this all-important area.
— Laura Rascaroli, University College Cork, Ireland

Available for purchase by clicking through to St. Andrews Film Studies bookshop

Who is Your City? Richard Florida. Part I

January 14, 2009 at 12:16 am

The title of this book (and its subtitle) — Richard Florida’s Who’s Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where You Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life
– really grabbed me. While I did not think that where to live would be the MOST important decision of my life, I knew for certain that in was one of the most important decisions one has to make from time to time. First, because being a migrant, I have had the chance to realise what a difference a place can make. Secondly, because I am in a stage of life when I have come to realise that, after several years of living in a quiet and beautiful small-town location, I may be wiser to prepare a move sometime in the next few years, once I enter the ‘empty nester’ stage (in Florida’s classification).

Anyhow, I did not buy the book while in the US earlier in the year, as I first saw it at the shop of the Modern Art museum in Chicago where the price for the hardback was simply too high. I thought I would order it from Amazon when I get back home, an so I did. When it arrived, I eagerly jumped on to reading it: I did not want to delay any further the moment when I would get to prepare my next move and I thought the book may help me do this in an informed manner (especially as it promised a type of self-help part at the end, where it were to facilitate making a decision on the matter of who your city might be according to one’s personal circumstances).

I love the place where I currently live, as it perfectly fits my personal situation at the present stage. I ended up here not as a result of planning, but it could not have been a better choice. It is safe, homey, beautiful, has got great schools and I see my son thrive in a way he would not in another location. However, he will soon be eighteen, and even if he is still around after that time comes, I would be free to move myself. And, admittedly, I am somewhat tired to live in a conservation village on the seaside: nice and I would always love to keep this place, but not live here permanently.

Richard Florida’s book, thus, came with a great promise: it was meant to help clarify things and make enlightened decisions. A colleague had recommended it as well, albeit with some reservations. It was probably due to the high expectations I had vested, that a feeling of disappointment came about around midway of my reading, and then progressively took over entirely. Starting with the great promise of addressing matters of great importance and persuasively arguing that the decision where you would live may be a key to other things, the book then abandons its own premise and turns into a discussion of urban areas in the US, offering commentary that I found boring and monotonous for the most part. I should have simply stopped reading after the first part or so.

The biggest disappointment was the slump from the opening global perspective to the exclusive focus on the US. Well, probably most of Florida’s readers would be American, but if this was a book about them and for them, it should have been pitched as such. Not that this is the first book that I see making this slump. However, I am really sick and tired of the logically unsound and deeply problematic epistemological operation of silently equating the world with the US and then substituting the second for the first, which is still being performed by many American authors and scholars.

Indeed, we live in a global world and if Florida really wanted to show us how important the decision where to live is, he should have kept his discussion in the same vein he started off — globally. Yes, the world is not flat as Thomas Friedman has it but is spiky, as Florida is correct to point out. It is a global spikiness, however, and the biggest spikes of creative activity nowadays are scattered around the globe and are not only in North America but also in places like Europe, Asia, or Latin America. The real new creative class is not one that is limited to the US but one that moves between spikes, spending time not only in Silicon Valley and New York but in equally (if not more) important places like Tokyo or Hong Kong, Sydney and Milan, Rio and London.

Instead developing his argument along the lines he himself set out, instead of presenting the global moves of the creative class, what Florida does is to argue, in the theoretical part, with the help of all sorts of world-wide maps showing how not all places are equal, how there are ‘spikes’ where world’s creativity is clustering, and so on. Soon thereafter it is all forgotten and the author’s attention shrinks to the US exclusively (well, Toronto is also included as a place to where he has recently moved, apparently the biggest shift the author himself has undertaken in his search for the perfect location).

Yet the unspoken premise that the US is, by default, a more desirable country to live than other places, is precisely the one that needs to be questioned. Many of the locations that pop up in Florida’s discussion in parts three and four of his book have really got very little to do with the spikes of creative clusters that are discussed in earlier parts. Why did I spend all this time reading so far? To receive recommendations and lists of great places to live, such as East Lancing, MI? Been there, done that. True, in the context of the Wall-Mart/Best Buy/Starbucks/Hard Rock Cafe-dominated city scapes of America these may be acceptable places. Florida’s recommendations, however, have got little to do with the real decisions that members of the creative class are making on the matter where to live. Because nowadays an informed decision on these matters cannot possibly be limited to one country. And because, as it will transpire from the second part of my discussion, the coolest places to live, are actually located elsewhere. See Part II.

© Dina Iordanova
14 January 2009

Transnational/migrant actors: A certain case of invisibility I I

November 18, 2008 at 12:04 am

Just this past week I came across two instructive examples that illustrate the invisibility of transnational actors that I have been talking about. In these particular cases, it seems, it all comes along with a degree of voluntarily acceptance of the condition of invisibility. Let me elaborate.

The first instance was with Ingeborga Dapkunaite, the Lithuanian-born actress whom I first came to know of more than a decade ago, from Nikita Mikhalkov‘s Oscar-winning film Burned by the Sun (1994). She since emigrated and, I believe, is based in the UK, but has been taking roles internationally. I just watched her a few days ago in a Belgian production called 25 degrees in Winter a few days ago. She had the lead here, playing a Ukrainian immigrant to Belgium who gets involved with a displaced Spaniard while searching for an elusive Russian husband. A fully competent performance, precisely like the other work in roles Dapkunaite has delivered in more than ten other films where she has been given lead roles (e.g. the British Kiss of Life, 2003, where she plays opposite Peter Mullan). So I could not help being surprised when I came across the Wikipedia entry on the actress, which was not making any mention of what one would think were high profile engagements but was instead describing her exclusively as an actress engaged in ‘minor roles’ in Hollywood, e.g. as the mother of Hannibal Lechter in the ridiculous Hannibal Rising (2007) or as Brad Pitt’s wife in the utterly forgettable Seven Years in Tibet (1997). And yes, it also said she also appeared as a Bosnian refugee in a British TV drama. Clearly, the entry could be enriched substantially. Yet the very tone in which it was written was more than suggestive: whereas I would tend to describe the actress as a notable figure of transnational cinema who mostly moves within the realm of European film, this most easily accessible reference to her profile slots her immediately in the category of actors who are normally engaged in small supporting roles. Hence the resulting lesser visibility.

The other curious case I came across was the one of Max Freeman (a.k.a. Momchil Karamitev). I was on the IMDb, doing research on the Bulgarian epic film Time of Violence (1988), on which I am writing in my forthcoming book on Balkan film and history. Scrolling down the list of actors’ names, I came across the unlikely reference to Max Freeman in the role of the shepherd Goran, a strange appearance of a Western name among the long list of Bulgarian names. What was this Westerner’s name doing here? I did not remember any significant Western actors having taken part in the film. A simple click through the link supplied the answer: Max Freeman was the new name of the actor formerly known as Momchil Karamitev.

Freeman’s filmography as an actor, consisting of 20 titles in total, listed 11 Bulgarian films. He had played in ten of those during an intense five year period between 1984-1989, before emigrating in the early 1990s. In the eighteen years since 1990, the actor had apparently been in another nine films, some in Italy and some in the US. On the IMDb he is pictured with the make-up from his appearance in a singular installment of Star Trek: The Experience (2004; episode 4.04 more precisely); we also learn that he was entrusted with the role of a Russian mobster in the straight-to-video thriller Hit Me (2005). A click through to Freeman’s biography informs that he is the child of two actors, but the Bulgarian references are kept to a minimum. After all, what has been Momchil Karamitev in the past, is no more, and the new name is more like the new face given to him in the context of Star Trek.

As I am Bulgarian, I cannot help thinking of Max Freeman mostly as the son of two of Bulgaria’s greatest actors, the formidable Apostol Karamitev and the theatre diva Margarita Duparinova, people at whose talent I have had many an opportunity to marvel in my early years. Max Freeman’s biography does not include links to the father’s or the mother’s nor to his sister’s profiles on the IMDb, a place where linking to family members who are cineastes is commonplace. Well, true, linking to the names of actors from an obscure nation (even if they are great locally) would not help the actor raise from the certain degree of invisibility that seems to have afflicted him (like many others). Let’s hope that the change of name does the trick for him.

© Dina Iordanova
18 November 2008

Transnational/migrant actors: A certain case of invisibility I

November 6, 2008 at 12:51 am

There is a scene in István Szabó’s Mephisto (1981), a film which tackles the case of actor Hendrik Hoefgen (based on famous German actor Gustaf Gründgens), where his friend, the actress Nicoletta von Niebuhr is shown pondering on the advantages and disadvantages of emigrating. She is clearly aware that her career would face decline once abroad, and articulates her concerns over her chances to master a foreign accent or over other types of marginalization she would be likely to face. It is a fateful conversation, which proves decisive not only for her but for the protagonist as well, who decides to stay in Nazi Germany (and returns there even when he has got the chance to emigrate easily). By staying in his native country he enjoys a high profile career indeed, but also becomes a Nazi collaborator. In any case, by committing to a national culture, even if to a problematic one, he avoids the danger of becoming invisible.

This was back in the 1930s, or more than seventy years ago. Things have changed, and the migrations of actors over the years have increased. Yet, scrutinizing the creative paths of those actors who go into emigration today and build transnational careers is most instructive, especially as one traditionally believes that for actors, faced with the challenge of mastering new languages and accents, emigration often spells the end to a career. Having looked closely in the cases of many actors who emigrated out of various Eastern European contexts over the past decade or so, I can clearly establish that it is only singular actors who are able to sustain meaningfully visible careers abroad, and it is a mixture of resilience and luck that proves decisive in the process. Many vanish, or even worse, make appearances in films that are of a much lower quality than the ones in which they have launched their careers, and, having moved over to the nearly invisible periphery, keep working but are never noticed.

Migrant actresses remain invisible even when cast in key roles. For example, international critics nearly unanimously destroyed Bruno Dumont’s Twenty-nine Palms (France/ Germany/ USA 2003), featuring Russian-Lithuanian-French Actress Katia (Yekaterina) Golubeva (pictured here in Claire Denis’ L’Intrus, 2004). Their criticisms of the film were directed elsewhere, yet most of them spoke of the actress as a completely unknown face dug out by Dumont from who knows where. In fact, Golubeva has been a more or less permanent presence in films by Sharunas Bartas since the late 1980s, so these same critics are likely to have not only watched her but also to have praised her for performances in a range of films at the festivals they frequent. In addition, she played significant parts in well-known French art house films such as Claire Denis’s J’ai pas sommeil/I Cannot Sleep (France/Switzerland 1994) and L’Intrus/The Intruder (France 2004) and the lead in Leos Carax’s Pola X (France/Switzerland/Germany/Japan 1999), all extensively covered by these same international critics. Yet, in her new reincarnation in the Californian desert, Katia Golubeva remained unrecognized and was treated as a newcomer (or, rather, not particularly welcomed outsider). Similar examples can be discovered in the case of many other migrant actresses (e.g. Croatian star Mira Furlan, Russian Chulpan Khamatova, Polish veteran Grazyna Szapolowska, the Lithuanian-Russian Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Serbian Branka Katić and Mirjana Joković), all stars of award-winning films by directors such as Kieslowski or Kusturica, yet unrecognized in the Western productions they have appeared in lately. One discovers that these actresses have managed to keep themselves employed by appearing in perfectly respectable Western European or American films even after changing countries. In reality, however, they remain known only in the context of their original national cinema; their transnational work remains invisible.

The situation with migrant male actors is similar. The most successful among the East Europeans are those who, while abroad, are happy to embrace the limitations of typecasting and play the roles of Eastern European villains or migrant patriarchs. This fully applies, for example, to former DEFA star Armin Mueller-Stahl and to Yugoslav Rade Serbedzija, who enjoy high-profile international careers today. Both actors maintain a remarkable transatlantic schedule by regularly taking on roles in Hollywood, in American art-house and indie films, as well as in films made in a range of European or other countries (New Zealand, Canada, Australia), and in their countries of origin. They both are well-known for roles that link them to their Eastern European heritage and tradition: Armin Mueller-Stahl recently played a London-based Russian Godfather in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (2007) while Serbedzija (pictured), who, to his credit, has persisted in retaining his difficult name unchanged even under the temptation to Westernize it by making it somewhat easier to spell or pronounce, has readily embraced the roles of an Eastern European mafioso, Russian gangster or underground trader, in a range of international productions since the mid 1990s.

© Dina Iordanova
6 November 2008

We Drank the Same Water/ Nous avons bu la même eau (2008), a film tracing the Armenian presence in today’s Turkey by Serge Avédikian

October 9, 2008 at 3:28 am

The documentary Nous avons bu la même eau/We Drunk the Same Water premiered in Paris in May 2008, and had several weeks of continuous run in two early evening slots in Espace Saint-Michel, one of many tiny but well attended art house cinemas (cinema d’art et essay) in the area between the Sorbonne and the Seine. I saw it on one of the fist nights, alongside members of the Armenian community in Paris; the screening was introduced by director Serge Avédikian, a French-Armenian actor and theatre personality (see his web-site), who had also organised discussion with some historians after the screening (I could not attend it).

The director has first taken the opportunity to visit Soloz, the place from where his Armenian ancestors originate, in 1987, while attending a theatre festival in Istanbul. The film features footage of this first visit. The town, located on the south side of Marmara sea about 170 km south of Istanbul, is now populated by ethnic Turks whose families settled there in the 1920s as part of the large-scale ‘population exchanges’ of the period after they have been displaced from their habitual areas of residence near Thessaloniki in today’s Greece. Avedikian’s Armenian grandfather, Avédis, and his family, lived in Soloz early in the 20th century until the time when, threatened by famine, destitution and destruction, they were driven away from the territory of modern-day Turkey. In yet another installment of the effort to bring hushed histories from the region to the limelight, we see the director uncovering traces of ancient Armenian presence: it does not take long to find tombstones that are now used as steps; the foundations of the old church are still in place.

Most part of the film evolves around the director’s second visit to Soloz in 2006. Some of the people he had met during the first visit who still live here; both him and they have aged, a realisation that makes them feel closer to each other. Like before, some of them treat him with suspicion, while others welcome him with open hearts and minds. More people are willing to talk and show him the remnants of Armenian presence that are scattered all over the place. A man uses one of the Armenian stones to press his olives at home. Others take him to a nearby field where more relics are unearthed below the grass. In exchange, he shows them old pale pictures of his family who once lived here.

The most interesting aspect of the film is Avedikian’s interaction with the local men. Rather than generalising, he makes an effort to be fair in revealing the variety of individual reactions he is getting from different people: while the town’s mayor treats him with suspicion on both visits, the local doctor is truly supportive; while some close their doors to him, others welcome him to their homes; while some refuse to talk others are willing to engage in lengthy conversations about the rights and wrongs of history.

Things, however, take a turn for the worse when Avédikian decides to quiz the locals on their knowledge on the Armenian genocide. As one is usually the case in these regions (where adverse facts of history are relegated to oblivion and whre controversy-causing claims are hushed away and not made known to local people as a matter of principle), most of the interviewees react by saying that this is the first time they hear of such a thing; if it happened, they say, it was probably the responsibility of singular individuals and those responsible were probably punished (only in one case the discussion goes in more detail with references to concrete names and historical personalities). The locals clearly distance themselves from the allegations and make an important point to Avedikian: you see, we are not different from yourself; your family has been driven away and has ended up in France, and, likewise, our families have been uprooted from where they used to live and have resettles, ending up here. Both your and our people have all suffered in the course of these forced migrations; and indeed, we drunk the same water. But one cannot hold us responsible for what happened to the people who lived here before, our ancestors came to these places only after the previous inhabitants were no longer here; they never even met face to face.

It is in this part of the film where Avedikian gets to walk the tightrope of a tricky proposition that will ultimately prove untenable. It is one thing to unravel the traces left of one’s ancestors, and the director is really successful at this, winning over the locals and making them re-live the past with him. As the men from Soloz are themselves descendants of displaced ancestors, they are capable to understand and willing to identify with his quest. But when he starts pushing it further, it is clearly not working (and there is no chance that it would work). It is not them who are responsible for what happened to the Armenians who lived here; it may be a relief for Avedikian to be able to share his historical grievances, but where such move comes along with an expectation that contemporary Turks would volunteer to share into this guilt it is a dead end street.

It is the same all over the Balkans, a region that is full of grievances of this type that almost each ethnic group makes against others in relation to one period or another: in order to reconcile and overcome the wounds of the past people often are expected to take a stance against their own, a move that is not easy to make and that most of them are not really ready for just yet.

© Dina Iordanova
9 October 2008

Multiethnic urban margin in European and international cinema

October 1, 2008 at 9:52 pm

The dynamic forces of global economy brought new diversity to the urban margins of Europe. It is a process that has been analyzed by anthropologists (Hannerz 1996) and sociologists (Sassen 1998), and has been represented in films since the mid-1990s, cinematic texts that show the interactions of marginalized ethnic personages and members of the disenfranchised classes at the periphery of the global metropolis. The best-known film that explores thus type of interactions is Mathieu Kassovitz’s suburban classic tale of mixed-race delinquency La Haine/Hate (France, 1995) ‘a text that underlines both the mobility of culture (Black, Jew, and Moroccan) yet is placed within a terrifyingly violent, segregated and ‘immobile’ location’ (Dasgupta, 2002), thus underscoring what Morley has termed ‘incarceration in the banlieues’ (2000: 159). A powerful continuation of this type of film is the multiple award-winning L’Esquive (2003) of Abdellatif Kechiche (pictured), released in English with the decisively off-putting title Games of Love and Chance.

Many more films, however, belong to the category of the ‘multicultural urban margin,’ created by the dynamic forces of global economy, with settings ranging from New York to Perth in Australia to Vancouver in Canada. I have argued, in a forthcoming piece, that the critical mass of these films is sufficient to allow us talk of a new European film genre.*

Films of this kind have often been set in the multicultural neighborhoods of large American cities, like New York. Tony Gerber’s Side Streets (1998), for example, is one of these multicultural urban periphery texts, set on the background of Manhattan’s skyline but taking place in an ethnic enclave not monopolised by one particular group but rather housing a mixture of immigrants, all featured here speaking their respective languages, eating their respective foodstuffs, and observing their respective traditions. The protagonists include the Puerto Ricans Ramon and Marisol cooking mondongo (tripe stew), a young Romanian woman, and an ageing Bollywood actor and his extended Indian family. Another good example of the ‘genre’ is Goran Paskaljevic’s Tudja Amerika/Someone Else’s America (France/UK/Germany/Greece 1995). Also set in the multiethnic enclaves of New York, the films tells a story of a Montenegrin immigrant who marries a Chinese-American girl in a wedding celebration during which they all dance flamenco under the accompaniment of a Basque friend.

Things look pretty much the same in films set in the French capital. In Fureur/Rage (France, Karim Dridi, 2003), a love and passion story set in the Parisian Chinatown, a Spaniard falls in love with a Chinese girl. Another recent Paris-set production (One Dollar Curry, Vijay Singh, 2004) focused on a Sikh protagonist interacting with a street-wise Jamaican and with Russian prostitutes. ‘I wanted to show a part of the city that has never been shown before,’ the director said in an interview. ‘It may have the Eiffel Tower in the background but the touristy face of Paris is far away from the daily life of the protagonists who are more engulfed in the political context of Jean Marie Le Pen’ (to Gentleman, 2003: 12).

Within European cinema this urban marginal diversity is reflected into a specific range of films featuring diverse groups of young first generation immigrants (see Spagnioletti 2000). These films are often set in cities still struggling to come to terms with their newly found multiculturalism, like Vienna (as in Barbara Albert’s Austrian Nordrand/ Northern Skirts, 1999) or Altona in Germany (as in Fatih Akin’s German Kurz und schmerzlos/Short Sharp Shock, 1998). Erik Poppe’s Norwegian production Schpaa (1998) featured the interactions between marginalized immigrants from Yugoslavia and Pakistan in the drug dealing underground of Oslo; the Copenhagen settings of Nicolas Winding Refn Danish films Pusher (1996) and Pusher 2 (2004) are equally multicultural. Dino Tsintsadse’s German-made Lost Killers (2000) shows the provincial city of Mannheim as home of a diverse group of illegal immigrants all involved in the black underground economies: Croat Branko is a drug dealer, Georgian Merab is a hitman, Haitian Carlos wants to reach Australia by getting involved in organ trafficking, and the Vietnamese Lan walks the streets. Constantine Giannaris’ Apo tin akri tis polis/From the Edge of the City (Greece, 1998) revealed the multicultural ghetto side of Athens. Similar representations of urban life abound in French cinema: Marseille, for example, is depicted as a typical multiculturally marginal metropolis not only in the films of Robert Guedigian but also in a number of ‘beur’ films such as Bye-Bye (Karim Dridi, 1995, France/Switzerland/Belgium), Loin/Far Away (2001, André Téchiné), and in Père/Father (Algeria, Naguel M. Belouad, 2004).

Urban centres located elsewhere are not very different, either. In the Wellington-set Broken English (New Zealand, Gregor Nicholas 1996) a young Croatian immigrant falls in love with a native Maori man while secretly marrying an illegal Chinese man to help him immigrate, a set-up seen in a range of other films from Australia or New Zealand. It expands as far as Japan: The protagonist of Miike Takashi’s Tokyo-set Hyôryuu-gai/ City of Lost Souls (Japan, 2000) is a diasporic Japanese-Brazilian who has returned to Japan from his native Rio de Janeiro. His current girlfriend is a Chinese immigrant while his former one is Portuguese. The action evolves in neighbourhoods dominated by mixed ethnicities: A Russian human trafficker keeps an office in an area populated by an international crowd of fair-haired prostitutes working the streets in Tokyo. Besides Japanese and Cantonese, Mandarin and English, a substantial portion of the dialogue is delivered in Portuguese and Russian.

Many of the protagonists in the films of the multicultural urban margin are new migrants flocking in from various distant parts of the former Soviet Empire; they cross paths and forge alliances with other migrants whose itineraries to Europe have originated somewhere in the Third World. Having found themselves together in the global city, these dispossessed newcomers encounter older migrants who have been there for decades and who know their ways, yet are still equally marginal and dispossessed. Most of the exchanges do not gravitate toward a cathartic breakthrough, but evolve as a monotonous sideline. But the very encounter help the protagonists of either group to come to terms with their own social exclusion. Rather than ending up in bitter disillusionment, these newly forged alliances allow them to interrelate and bond in comforting and mutually empowering ways.


References
:

Dasgupta, Sudeep, University of Amsterdam, Personal correspondence, March 2002.
Gentleman, Amelia, ‘Bollywood on the Seine.’ The Guardian, November 7, 2003, Friday Review, p. 12/13.
Hannerz, Ulf. Transnational Connections: Culture, People, Places, London: Routledge, 1996.
Morley, David, Home Territories: Media, Mobility and Identity, London and New York: Routledge, 2000.
Sassen, Saskia. Globalization and its Discontents: Essays on the New Mobility of People and Money, 1998.
Spagnoletti, Giovanni (ed.) Il cinema Europeo del metissage. Peasro: XXXVI Mostra Internazionale del Nuovo Cinema, 2000.

* See Iordanova, Dina. ‘Migration and Cinematic Process in Post-Cold War Europe,’ in Berghahn, Daniela and Claudia Sternberg (eds.) Migrant Cinema in Europe, London: Wallflower Press, 2009.

© Dina Iordanova
2 October 2008

Evolution of Representing Migration in Turkish Film

August 27, 2008 at 12:57 am

Migration often brings with it the experience of disturbance and pain, and narrative films have usually focused on the exilic aspects of passage and resettlement. Changing places has traditionally been looked upon as something undesirable and traumatic. Take, for example, the films about the westward migrations of Turks. The anxiety linked to village-city migrations is explored in Turkish social realist masterpieces such as Halit Refig’s Gurbet Kuslari/ Birds of Exile (1964), in Zeki Ökten’s Sürü/Herd (1978, a film scripted by Yilmaz Güney), and in Ali Özgentürk’s At/Horse (1982).

The fear of venturing into the unknown territory of the Western metropolis are the subject of Tunç Okan’s Otobüs/The Bus (Sweden/Turkey, 1976), telling the story of a group of migrant workers who end up abandoned and robbed of documents and money in the center of Stockholm. Tevfik Baser’s 40 Quadratmeter Deutschland/ 40 Square Meters of Germany (West Germany/ Turkey, 1986) tells the story of the virtual imprisonment of a Gastarbeiter’s bride. The shocking scorn faced by poor migrants trying to penetrate into ‘Fortress Europe’ is tackled in Xavier Koller’s Journey of Hope (Switzerland/Turkey/UK, 1990).

All these films can be seen, in one way or another, as antecedents of the new Turkish German migrant cinema, which has its best-known representative in Fatih Akin with his Head On/ Gegen die Wand (2004) and Edge of Heaven/ Auf der anderen Seite (2007). Yet it was only the new aptitude of its diaspora-raised directors, who gracefully rose above the acrimony and, rather than scrutinizing segregation and xenophobia that forcefully reinforced the points of all earlier films on migration and displacement, moved away toward new thematic territories. What the new wave of Turkish German cinema did was to acknowledge the dynamics of new migratory realities and to depict, without complaining, a fully tolerable and adequate human condition where ethnic otherness has become a lasting feature of life and where one-dimensional identities, previously stubbornly maintained, are suspended in favor of enduring changeability.

© Dina Iordanova
27 August 2008

Homo Sovieticus Dispossessed III: Abandonement by the Mother

July 14, 2008 at 5:59 am

I do not intend to go in detail here as this is a different topic, but still need to mention that the cinematic Russian fathers are typically shown as absent, unreliable, or untrustworthy. I can think of some exceptions where paternal concern is the leading motive of shattering dramas, but they are typically found in films that feature men from the other nationalities of the former Soviet Union, like the Georgian Father of the Soldier (Djariskatsis mama/ Otets soldata, 1965) and the Kazakh Land of the Fathers (Zemlya otzov, 1966). A persuasive portrayal of a slippery and treacherous Russian ‘father’ is developed in Pavel Chukhraj’s film Thief (Vor, 1997).

Mothers are a different thing. As I want to keep focused on theme of migration, I am mostly thinking of the complex daughter-mother relationship in one of the last Soviet era blockbusters, Pyotr Todorovsky’s Intergirl (Interdevochka, 1989). Raised by her mother (the father is typically absent), Tanya has the respectable job of a nurse but makes much more by prostituting herself to foreign businessmen. Her mother, the respectable teacher Alla Sergeevna, is completely unaware of this aspect of her daughter’s life. Tanya marries one of her clients and moves to Sweden, a position that improves her own financial situation significantly and enables her to help the mother’s finances from a distance. But rather than settling for this seemingly happy solution, both women wane by the day. Tania’s guilt for having abandoned the mother grows irreversibly, parallel with her growing disillusionment with the alienated capitalist West and the arrogance of the husband. The mother, who silently condemns Tania’s lifestyle and decision to leave, grows more and more withdrawn and, when she belatedly comes to learn the commonly-known fact of her daughter’s ‘occupation’, resorts to committing suicide. In the final, extremely tense sequence of the film, Tanya is shown rushing back home through border checks and suffocating rain, desperate to get to her mother, the retired teacher. But it is too late. She is left crying at the closed door of their small communal apartment. But there is no one to open up for her, no one who could forgive her. Tanya betrayed mother Russia and is now punished, pushed away, left knocking at a closed door.

It took only a few years for this whole take on mothers/children relationship to change in the cinematic narrative. By the late 1990s it were the mothers that started betraying their children and leaving them behind (or at least this is the case if we judge by what we see in films). Once the powerful migratory push was unleashed, mothers seem to have been abandoning their children in droves (usually, by temporarily leaving them in the first instance, without a clear commitment to a ‘collection date’). Kolya of the eponymous film (1996), for example, has been dragged to the granny in Prague by his Russian mother, but then left behind when the mother takes off on the next leg of the journey to Germany, and finds himself fully dependent on the kindness of strangers already at the fragile age of five.

The most intensely painful film where the teenage protagonist’s downfall is entirely predicated on an abandonment by the mother is Lukas Moodysson’s Lilja 4-ever (2002). The plot is well-known: 16-year old Lilja is left alone in a provincial town in Russia, then trafficked to Sweden and forced into prostitution. We see her at the beginning of the film running to her death (she will commit suicide by jumping from a high bridge), and then told her harrowing story in an extended flashback.

There are many devastating moments in this brutally graphic film, but none as shattering as the scenes delineating Lilja’s abandonment by her mother (as usual, the father is absent by default): the mother announces the departure to America with her new boyfriend; the mother informing Lilja that she will have to ‘temporarily’ stay behind; the mother departing (and Lilja running after the car in desperation); the mother sending a letter denouncing her parental rights.

Lilja’s forced ‘weaning’ goes through different stages: She attempts to struggle to keep the mother by parading her fragility, she then displays openly her feeling of betrayal, to end up in downfall and resignation. At 16 she is completely alone, acquiescently available to all those who may want to use up her teenage body. Her only friend is an angel-like pre-pubescent boy, who is similarly alone and whose death she is unable to acknowledge.

There is no end in sight. The closed door of Intergirl hangs open with a wide berth in Lilja.* But no one is knocking and no one is around; the home is empty.

* For a critical comparison of the two films, see Kristensen, Lars. Divergent Accounts of Equivalent Narratives: Russian-Swedish Interdevochka Meets Swedish-Russian Lilya 4-ever. PORTAL Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies, vol. 4, no. 2, July 2007. Belorussian critic Elmira Osmanova has also written on these issues.

© Dina Iordanova
14 July 2008

Homo Sovieticus Dispossessed II: Migrating Russians, Media vs. Cinematic Discourse

July 13, 2008 at 12:09 am

Media narratives of Putin’s Russia talk of contract killings (Anna Politkovskaya), spy posonings (the Litvinenko and Polonium 10 affair), oligarchs in exile (Berezovsky), oligarchs in jail (Khodorkovsky), and so on. The brain drain of Russia and on the jet-set lifestyles of the growing class of nouveau riche have been reported on extensively. In political and media discourses the Russians are still being admonished as latent ruthless colonizers, eager and determined to regain the power they lost over the last two decades. They may be weakened, but they are being watched with suspicion.

The cinematic representation of the current migratory ordeals of the Russians, however, has almost completely suppressed the memory of the overpowering role that they played in Europe until recently, and has focused, at least so far, on the plight of frail women and cute children. In cinema the spotlight seems to be taken by simple individuals, often women who are forced to migrate and are often misled and victimized. It is not by chance that there have been so many films focusing on the predicament of cross-border trafficking and forced prostitution, of which Swedish Lilja 4-Ever (2002, Lukas Moodysson) is probably the best-known example. And even where the story does not concern the extreme vulnerability leading to prostitution, the narrative of the Russian immigrant features admirably self-assured and compassion-worthy females, as those seen in the acclaimed Israeli Ha-Chaverim Shel Yana/Jana’s Friends (Arik Kaplun, 1999) or British Last Resort (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2000).

A present-day visit to the newly restored German Reichstag reveals the graffiti left by Soviet soldiers on the interior walls at the end of WWII, intentionally preserved in the reconstruction to serve as a powerful warning to be careful not to get oneself under the Russian boot again. Yet, if one judges from what is seen in cinema, the overall sentiment that prevails across Europe is one of sympathy, even if one still identifies the Russians with the colonialism of the former Soviet Union. No longer marked by the straightforward resentment and fear of Russian dominance from Cold War times, films like Gorilla Bathes at Noon (Germany, Dusan Makavejev, 1993) reveal a mixture of love-hate attraction, and sometimes even sympathy and nostalgia for the specific Soviet kitsch and worn-out revolutionary symbolism. In these films, the colonizer is being humanized, given a name and a soul, and represented as yet another human being with the same concerns and needs as all others.

See also my article The New Russia: Nostalgia for the Occupier, Commiseration for the Immigrant in Canadian Slavonic Papers, October-November 2000.

© Dina Iordanova
13 July 2008