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.


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

Osceola (GDR, 1971) Konrad Petzold

August 3, 2008 at 11:00 am

Osceola was one of the great films of my childhood, a prime example of the action-adventure cinema that was produced for the needs of viewers within the communist East bloc and of the specific transnational set-up of film production of the period.

Starring Yugoslavia-born Gojko Mitic, who showcases the best abs east of the Iron Curtain, the film’s story is loosely based on the real historical figure of 19th century Seminole leader Osceola and features the resistance that his followers, comprising of Seminoles and Black slaves, put against their White masters in Florida. The film’s politically correct ‘socialist realist’ plot is fully in line with the ideology of the time: the suppressed proletarian classes (which in this case are represented by the suppressed racial and ethnic minorities) manage to see their shared interests, identify their common enemy, and put up resistance in united fashion. A secondary, less overt, message of the film is to keep alive the consciousness of the wide-spread racism and discrimination that supposedly still prevail in disguised form in the South of the United States. Most importantly, in contrast to the traditional Western where the protagonists are usually low-class white settlers, the film positions Indians and the Blacks in the core of the action.

Osceola is entertaining and engaging, even if it appears somewhat slow if judged by today’s standards for an action-adventure, as it lacks the fast pacing and dynamic cutting that characterize the Hollywood action films of the same era. The film, however, manifests an extremely important feature of the cinema of the communist period: Productions that were perceived as having a wider audience potential and that could be marketed across the shared market of the East bloc were made in transnational fashion (thus transnationalism in production was as prevalent here as it was in the West, even if not a more persistent feature). How is this illustrated in the specific case of Osceola, a co-production between the GDR, Cuba and Bulgaria? First of all, in the range of shooting locations, which are chosen and showcased in a way that successfully replicates the approach of classical Westerns, featuring breathtaking vistas and spectacular landscapes. Scenes requiring lush valleys punctuated by tall palm trees are shot in Cuba while the scenes showing village life are made at the Boyana Studios in in Bulgaria (most likely using already existing sets that were adapted from other productions). Similarly, other Gojko Mitic native Indian-themed films have been made in co-production as well and shot in Romania, Yugoslavia, Mongolia, and so on.

The cast of the film illustrates the transnational approach particularly well. Gojko Mitic in the lead role of Osceola is a transplanted Serbian; the actor still lives and works in Germany, where he enjoys a significant cult following. Besides the German actors, key roles are assigned to Romanian Iurie Darie and to Bulgarian actresses Pepa Nikolova and Iskra Radeva. The two black men are played by Almamy Soumare and Boubakar Toure (who, credited as Touré Beubacar, also played in the 1970 DEFA production Signale, a film that featured an even wider transnational cast of actors from over ten different countries, mostly from the Second and the Third world). The performance of Toure is competent and comelling, but I have not been able to establish any further information on his career path. Maybe he was one of the young people from the Third world who were sent to the East bloc to get subsidized higher education? He may have played in Osceola but may have been pursuing a different career path and may have become a doctor or an engineer later in life. Or maybe he was educated as a film professional and, having returned to his African country, may have become a filmmaker in his own right. If this is the case, information about him is still to emerge on the IMDb.

© Dina Iordanova
3 August 2008