Lit Review – Power of Cinema (Draft 1)

The Potential of Cinema towards Mobilization and Empowerment:

Mass political participation is important and quite the realistic phenomenon to consider, especially since technological advancements have allowed for mechanical reproducibility. In fact, in the age of modernity, some radical scholars prompted the modern subjects to mobilize or at least test the consciousness of the masses through newly developed technological media. Thinkers like Walter Benjamin saw the liberating potential of certain technological media, which had the capacity to awaken the masses to the fact of ever-changing malleable quality of social structures and cultural norms.
Benjamin suggests that film (or cinema) in the age of technological reproducibility had certain capabilities of projecting a collectivized representation of what he refers to as the “optical unconscious.” The cinematic apparatus can present a virtual experience (although primarily optical) that otherwise would not be comprehended let alone recognized by the collective masses progressing through time and space structured by hegemonic understandings of social norms. Benjamin states, “Thanks to the camera, therefore, the individual perceptions of the psychotic or the dreamer can be appropriated by the collective perception” (Benjamin 118). If this is the case, the multiplicity of untapped memories within a collective or community’s unconscious can be addressed, and perhaps simulated through the cinematic medium.

Leo Charney in discussing Benjamin’s conception of “shock” and “the momentary” in the face of modernity indicates how “film became the defining art for of the temporal experience of modernity” (Charney 285). He also adds, “For Benjamin, the upheaval of modernity arose in this movement away from experience conceived as a continuous cumulation towards an experience of momentary shocks that bombarded and shattered subjective experience like hand grenades” (284-5). If the crisis of modernization brought about some level of trauma to the subjects being processed through such dramatic social transformation, then film was a near perfect medium through which to resituate their subjectivity into the normative temporal order. Film as an art form and an aesthetic experience enabled modern subjects to subject themselves to the sensorium of the ever-moving present temporality.

The films of interest for this project are those that directly as well as explicitly oppose and deconstruct the dominant ideology of the ruling class. These films manifest their political critique and sometimes attack against the dominant racist ideology through both content and form. Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni suggest that these types of films are effective because they advocate for “breaking down of the traditional way of depicting reality” (Camolli & Narboni 62). The authors write, “We would stress that only action on both fronts, ‘signified’ and ‘signifiers’ has any hope of operating against the prevailing ideology” (62). Activist or revolutionary cinema must take into consideration the need for changes not only in the content of political discourses but also the formal strategies deployed to mediate or facilitate the messages communicated within the framework of those discourses.

Jean-Luc Godard has been famous for his experimentations on film form and liberation of the cinematic apparatus’ agency in not only reflecting on but also provoking political action. Many of his post-1970s films take up the challenge of politically deconstructing the contemporary dominant ideological system through content and form. Films like 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle and Tout va Bien directly comment on the social and political issues of consumer capitalism, gender discrimination, class struggles, and state violence as they also experiment with formal strategies that challenge conventional cinematic practices reinforcing the established system of presenting “bourgeois realism” (Camolli & Narboni 61).

Godard is at the forefront amongst the innovators who have implemented Brechtian Theatre techniques to cinema. The intent behind the techniques is to liberate social consciousness and provide access to a critical space in which to not only re-evaluate but also re-construct social reality. A performance or “demonstration” employing Brechtian techniques must emphasize reflexivity. Everyone participating in the performative experience has to be constantly conscious of the fact that they are engaged in a discourse within an abstracted theater space. The theatre itself need not pretend to be a moment of everyday social reality. It is encouraged for all participants including, performers and audiences alike, to realize that the theatre is only a constructed representation of the real. It is not the objective of those presenting the theatrical demonstration to achieve verisimilitude when imagining the arrangement of the stage space. “His job is not to cast a spell over anyone… He need not possess special powers of suggestion” (Brecht 427). Audiences who have witnessed this kind of demonstration are held accountable for thinking about ways by which to re-imagine social conditions and re-configure everyday social norms.

Brechtian techniques provoke the viewing masses to take the task of writing history into their own hands. Through the discourses that emerge out of engagement with the demonstrations, the viewing masses have the opportunity to take control of reorganizing the social structure. Similarly, Teshome Gabriel suggests that practices of popular memory challenge the tendencies of “official history,” which “privilege the written word of the text… It claims a ‘center’ which continuously marginalizes others” (Gabriel 53). Official history devalues all memories and recollections not included in its written narrative. On the other hand, popular memory seeks to collect all the pieces of the past from different perspectives. It does not consider one trajectory of the past. Within the dynamics of popular memory, the past becomes consciousness of the struggle for the future. That consciousness, or the recognized perception and experience of the struggle, is constantly subject to change, depending on which memories or recounts of the past are uncovered.

Gabriel argues that Third Cinema is the exemplary model with the potential to preserve as well as raise the significance of popular memory in the context of modernity. Third Cinema was founded on principles of participatory expressions geared to mobilize masses towards collective struggle for political liberation. Third Cinema is a modern iteration of popular memory, and its purpose is to assert radical consciousness. Unlike official history, which imposes a certain authoritative view or logic of temporality as a single path from the past to the future, Third Cinema and popular memory urge their participating subjects to construct their own understanding of the past and constantly re-negotiate their own consciousness of the struggle through the future.

In the contemporary era of the 21st century, scholars like Robert Stam critically address alternative cinema that take up the cultural discourses involving marginalized and disenfranchised communities, generally of the Third World. He pays close attention to the set of aesthetics and aesthetic strategies that the films in this category use in order to subvert systems of cultural identification and racial codification in favor of colonial oppression, racial discrimination, and dehumanization. The alternative aesthetics reconfigure the negative associations and meanings imposed upon images of the victimized. Through such reconfiguration, the existing colonialist discourse itself is subverted to give advantage to the dominated against the dominator. The dominator’s language is appropriated and retooled to combat power structures, which repress the histories and cultural identities of the dominated. The waste or garbage imposed upon the marginalized is literally picked up and assembled into weapons able to challenge global imperialism driven by capitalism and its systems of extracting and assigning value.

Stam stresses the importance of unveiling the multiplicity of identities involved and the plural modes of expression involved in this type of alternative cinema. Hybridity is constitutive of any site hosting political conflict, particularly one in which colonial domination occurs. The films discussed by Stam are supposed to elicit audiences to draw out the presence of cultural hybridity in national identity. They provoke the spectator to reflect on the history and the hidden truths, from the deep entanglements with violence to the struggles with existing uneven power structures towards negotiation for self-empowerment. As readers engage in theoretical discussions of film, we get the sense of how the film medium with its capacity to layer multiple temporalities can raise consciousness to the persistence of the colonial and neo-colonial narrative.

Stam urges his readers to think about the specificities and potential of the film medium. He suggests that film is somewhat ideal in its capacity to express the co-existence of multiple temporalities in a single space. Not only is film capable of appropriating or preserving past art forms and traditions through mechanical reproduction, but also the very nature of the apparatus is constitutive of processing various spaces and times to be constructed for exhibition in a completely different temporality. It is this capacity of the cinematic medium to simultaneously contain multiple temporalities in a single apparatus, on which alternative aesthetics and configuration of narratives enable spectators to be keen, that allows viewers during analysis to look beyond the “normal” sequential formation of time and history. Viewers have to recognize the possibility of contradicting memories and perspectives co-existing in the same space of the audio-visual medium’s timeline.

As much as the alternative cinema reconstruct the meanings and significance of hybridity and hybrid identities, theoretical frameworks also need to change to adapt to a world that is even less clearly divided and categorized. As other knowledge systems begin to challenge Western epistemology, more disenfranchised and marginalized communities are finding ways to gain control over their representation. These communities are subverting the use of tools and media like cinema to deconstruct First World economic, political, and cultural dominance. Third Cinema was an exemplary model by which activists sought to mobilize collectives against social injustices, particularly those of colonial and racial oppression. With the rise of repressed communities finding their voice and control, the negotiations for self-empowerment have increased effect.
As we start to unlock the liberating potential of the cinematic medium, we also should not overlook the simple fact that the flow of communication with this particular audio-visual medium is unilateral. In a capitalist society, especially, mass participation in media has been divided along the lines of social divisions of labor. There are a few who produce or transmit ideas, information, and knowledge through the cinematic medium, while the remainder consume, and passively receive the message sent through the medium by the transmitter. There are gaps in my research regarding the limitations of the cinematic medium in efforts of mass mobilization as well as self-empowerment. It would be useful also to explore other forms of audio-visual media that may have the capacity to overcome the limitations of cinema. Furthermore, we need to address the representation of Asian identities. There is, in particular, a lack of analysis of how the Western consciousness has conceived of “Asian-ness” especially in situating diasporic communities, like the Asian American communities, within the Western context.

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