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 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.

The Yacoubian Building/ Omaret yakobean (2006) Marwan Hamed

July 22, 2008 at 12:38 am

The Egyptian Yacoubian Building, based on Alaa Al Aswani’s 2002 novel by the same name and set in Cairo of 1990, begun as a neighborhood saga and went on like this until the middle, pretty reminiscent of other international films of the sort. It reminded me very much to the Mexican blockbuster Midaq Alley (El Callejón de los milagros, 1995), which is, notably, based on another Egyptian novel by Naguib Mahfouz, and while originally set in Cairo, it is transferred to Mexico City for the film. The other film to which it compares directly is the Turkish Agir Roman (1997), also based on a popular novel (by Metin Kaçan) and set in Istanbul, and similarly tracing the evolving relationships and complex dynamics of the life in a neighborhood.

About an hour into the Yacoubian Building I thought it would stay confined to tracing the relations within this large apartment building in Cairo, pushing its several parallel narratives evolving around sexual, power and commercial intrigues, and revealing various aspects of human lust and greed. In spite the somewhat pompous black and white overview at the opening, placing the building and its inhabitants in a wider historical context, there was very little to suggest that there may be interest to linking to some bigger overarching themes.

But then the story gradually begun addressing deeper issues, to turn into a subtle political critique of a society that is undergoing Islamic radicalization. An impoverished student grows estranged from his pragmatic upwardly mobile fellow-students. Soon he is brainwashed at the nearby Mosque, takes part in street confrontations, is then arrested, tortured and raped, later on breaking up with his girlfriend and renouncing the world at large, descending irrevocably into radical Islamism and resorting to terrorism at the end. Even if his final desperately suicidal act is a personal revenge and does not allow him to ascend to a true confrontation of ideologies, the downward path of this protagonist persuasively reveals the factors that lead to the radicalization of young men who begin by receiving Westernized education but are then rapidly disillusioned and easily descend into the more welcoming and comfortable milieu of fundamentalism.

The adverse consequences of radicalization are powerfully ridiculed in Persepolis (2007). Tackled in a very different but equally powerful way, related matters of personal descent into the abyss of grass-roots level fundamentalism were addressed in the more intimate Pakistani-British film Silent Waters (Sabiha Sumar, 2003). There is a range of other recent films that, similarly, take the effort to clarify the logic of indoctrination and reveal the powerlessness of those who try to pull young people off the slippery path of Islamic fundamentalism. Typically these are films made elsewhere (India, Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, Iran) and very little seen or covered in the West. Their effort is to offer a glimpse into the logic of radicalization and explain the triggers of personal dissatisfaction and disillusionment that are behind it all. It is about loss of trust and abuse. It would be worthwhile to pay more attention to these films and to the stories that they are telling.

© Dina Iordanova
22 July 2008

Visual Representations of Iran, Conference at St. Andrews

June 17, 2008 at 12:43 am

Sponsored in part by the Iran Heritage foundation, the conference takes place June 12-16, 2008, and has a really rich programme and a parallel series of documentary film screenings. In addition, there is an impressive exhibition of photojournalist Kaveh Golestan. Iranian documentarians and many anthropology, media and film scholars working on Iran have congregated here for the occasion. It is recent developments in the academic context at St. Andrews that allow us to hold an event like this: the conference is co-organized between the visual anthropology strand within Social Anthropology, our own Centre for Film Studies, and the recently established Iranian Institute. Conference organiser Pedram Khosronejad has been with s for less than a year. Such an event would not have been possible juts a few years ago as none of these units was in existence.

Keynote speaker is our fellow-film scholar Hamid Naficy who is now a Professor of Film at Northwestern University in Chicago (pictured here in a photo taken by Parstimes). In his earlier reincarnation, Hamid worked at Rice University in Houston where he pioneered the studies of transnational, migrant and diasporic filmmaking with a conference which he organised in Houston in the mid-1990s, this was the period when the world was discovering the work of Frida Kahlo (who had her first large rtrospective in Houston at about the same time). Eventually, this strand of Hamid’s work resulted in acclaimed Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking (2001), which is one of the key texts in transnational film studies today, as well as the edited collection Home, Exile, Homeland: Film, Media, and the Politics of Place. Over the past several years Hamid has been working on a history of Iranian cinema which, as he is telling me, he is about to complete. The work is about 3000 pages long at the moment and is forthcoming from Duke University, hopefully next year. He is also the author of an important work of media anthropology, exploring the work of Iranian Television in LA (1993), a study which set some of the basics of exilic media studies.