Films with an accent
Globalization of cinema
June 13, 2001
From the introduction to Hamid Naficy's latest book, An Accented
Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking (Princeton University Press,
In June 1995 while conducting research in Paris for this book, I attended
a private screening of Mohsen Makhmalbaf's A Time to Love (Nowbat-e
Asheqi, 1991) at MK2 Productions, which was considering the film for distribution.
Made by the best-known new director to emerge since the revolution of 1979,
the film had been banned in the director's home country Iran, for its theme
of love, in essence a meange à trois. My friend Azadeh Kian
and I were the only spectators in the comfortably appointed screening room.
Perhaps partly to avoid the Iranian censors, Makhmalbaf
had shot the film in Turkey with all the film's dialogue in Turkish, a language
I did not know beyond certain words. The film was subtitled, but in French,
which at times passed too fast for my understanding, especially since I
was trying to take notes. On these occasions, I would nudge Azadeh to translate
for me. Reading the French subtitles, she would whisper the Persian translation
into my ears. Trying to keep up with her translation and with the ongoing
film and its subtitles, I was forced to take notes hurriedly in English
and Persian, whichever served the moment best. Thus, watching this single
film involved multiple acts of translation across four cultures and languages.
This chain of linguistic and cultural signification pointed to the radical
shift that has occurred in the globalization of cinema since my childhood.
In those days, cinema screens were monopolized by the West, particularly
by American films, and the Third World people were more consumers of these
films than producers of their own narratives. But now they are making and
exhibiting films, not only in their own countries but also increasingly
across national boundaries, finding receptive audiences in Western film
festivals and commercial theaters and on television.
This book is centrally concerned with the films that postcolonial, Third
World filmmakers have made in their Western sojourn since the 1960s, but
several key Russian, European, Canadian, and American filmmakers in exile
are also featured. In an earlier work, The
Making of Exile Cultures: Iranian Television in Los Angeles (University
of Minnesota Press, 1993), I focused on the particularity of a specific
group's televisual productions in exile, that of the Iranians in Los Angeles.
The present volume, on the other hand, seeks to identify and analyze
the common features of the cinematic productions of a number of filmmakers
from diverse originating and receiving countries. My contention is that
although there is nothing common about exile and diaspora, deterritorialized
peoples and their films share certain common features, which in today's
climate of lethal ethnic difference need to be considered, even emphasized.
While stressing these features, the book continually engages with the
specific histories of individuals and groups that engender divergent experiences,
institutions, and modes of cultural production and consumption. Hence the
use of close-up sections throughout. Significantly, what occurred in the
MK2 screening room involved not only watching and listening but also reading,
translating, and writing-all of which are part of the spectatorial activities
and competencies that are needed for appreciating the works of the filmmakers,
which I have termed "accented cinema."
This is by no means an established or cohesive cinema since it has been
in a state of preformation and emergence in disparate and dispersed pockets
across the globe. It is, nevertheless, an increasingly significant cinematic
formation in terms of its output, which reaches into the thousands, its
variety of forms and diversity of cultures, which are staggering, and its
social impact, which extends far beyond exilic and diasporic communities
to include the general public as well.
If the dominant cinema is considered universal and without accent, the
films that diasporic and exilic subjects make are accented. The accent emanates
not so much from the accented speech of the diegetic characters as from
the displacement of the filmmakers and their artisanal production modes.
Although many of their films are authorial and autobiographical, I problematize
both authorship and autobiography by positing that the filmmakers' relationship
to their films and to the authoring agency within them is not solely one
of parentage but also of performance.
However, by putting the author back into authorship I counter a prevalent
postmodernist tendency, which either celebrates the death of the author
or multiplies the authoring effect to the point of de-authoring the text.
Accented filmmakers are not just textual structures or fictions within their
films, but are also empirical subjects, situated in the interstices of cultures
and film practices, who exist outside and prior to their films.
Accented films are not marginal but interstitial, for they are created
astride and in the interstices of social formations and cinematic practices.
Consequently, they are simultaneously local and global and they resonate
against the prevailing cinematic production practices, at the same time
that they benefit from them.
As such, the best of the accented films not only signify and signify
upon the conditions of exile and diaspora but also upon cinema itself. They
signify and signify upon exile and diaspora by expressing, allegorizing,
commenting upon, and critiquing the home and host societies and cultures
and the deterritorialized conditions of the filmmakers.
They signify and signify upon cinematic traditions by means of their
artisanal and collective production modes, their aesthetics and politics
of smallness and imperfection, and their narrative strategies that cross
generic boundaries and undermine cinematic realism. Among Iranian exile
filmmakers that the books discusses at length are Reza Allamehzadeh, Houchang
Allahyari, Ghasem Ebrahimian, Shirin Etessam, Amir Naderi, Marva Nabili,
Parviz Sayyad, Sohrab Shahid Saless, Mitra Tabrizian, and Caveh Zahedi.
Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking