Table of Contents 2016 vol.1 no.2

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2

Table of Contents  2016 vol.1 no.2

Transnational Perspectives on Film and Media


Transnational Turn in Film Studies

Krzysztof Loska

“Let everybody love me”. The transnational body of Elżbieta Czyżewska

Sebastian Jagielski

Reading ABC. An experiment

Andrzej Pitrus

Rinko Kikuchi in Space: Transnational Mexican Directors’ Global Gaze

Jane Hanley

Clint Eastwoods’s Letters from Iwo Jima as a transnational film

Łukasz A. Plesnar

Depictions of Post-9/11 South Asian Racial Profiling in Indian Cinema

Kaja Łuczyńska

Postcolonial adaptations of classic British literature

Bartłomiej Nowak

Transnational Bodies of Yogis: A Flow from Analogue Photography to Social Media

Bilge Gölge

Slow Expansion. Neomodernism as a Postnational Tendency in Contemporary Cinema

Miłosz Stelmach

Mexican Minimalist Cinema: Articulating the (Trans)national

Bolesław Racięski

Welcome to BabaKiueria! Australian anniversaries and cultural forms of resistance

Rafał Nahirny




An artist as a figure between industry, technology, and imagination. Some remarks on Portret artysty jako inżyniera. Twórczość Edwarda Ihnatowicza by Joanna Walewska

Anna Nacher

Vampires, zombies, and phantoms – histories of horror stories. Review

Magdalena Zdrodowska

Images embedded in reality

Mateusz Zimnoch


Transnational Turn in Film Studies (Editorial)

Krzysztof Loska

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 1-7.

Krzysztof Loska

Jagiellonian University


Transnational Turn in Film Studies (Editorial)


Contemporary researchers emphasize the widespread use of “transnational” in humanistic discourse; some even speak of the “transnational turn”, or a kind of theoretical reorientation in the debate on the nature of global links. In contrast to the paradigm shift, the turn, as understood by Doris Bachmann-Medick, involves recognizing methodological pluralism, going beyond the limits, while at the same time transforming the earlier concepts and accepting the contingency of knowledge, which means embracing the fact that there are many possible ways of looking at the same object[1].

On the other hand, Mette Hjort has noted a growing tendency for excessive and uncritical use of the concept of transnational “as a largely self-evident qualifier requiring only minimal conceptual clarification”[2]. The idea of transnationalism plays an important role in the social sciences; I do not intend, however, to refer to sociological or economic theories, as in this area the idea of “transnational” functions primarily as a specific modification of the concept of globalization (as Steven Vertovec convincingly states in his book). I would rather focus on film studies that introduced such a category, namely Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu’s research of Chinese cinema and that of Andrew Higson in relation to British cinema[3].

In the latter case, the aim was to undermine a dominant perspective in film studies and to understand the limitations of “tendency to focus only on those films that narrate the nation as just a finite, limited space, inhabited by a tightly coherent and unified community, closed off to other identities besides national identities”[4]. Higson’s concept had two basic weaknesses: firstly, the author focused on the relationship between Hollywood and British cinema; secondly, the idea of transnational was considered primarily in terms of production, distribution, and reception, completely overlooking the existence of diasporic and postcolonial themes, which became important components of transnational turn.

Higson’s proposal was the starting point for Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden, who in the introduction to the anthology titled Transnational Cinema, wrote that „a key to transnationalism is the recognition of the decline of national sovereignty as a regular force in global coexistence, (…) dissolution of any stable connection between a film’s place of production and/or setting and the nationality of its makers and performers”[5]. However, Ezra and Rowden went much further, and placed the concept of transnationalism in other contexts associated with migration and the functioning of the modern diasporas. At the same time, they understood why it was so important to take into account the relationship between global and local dimensions, and the postnational version of the imagined community, in which one’s identity is suspended between the different spaces.

The issues of migration and development of contemporary diasporas play a leading role in the so-called accented cinema. The notion, introduced by Hamid Naficy, refers to transnational films made by migrants or political refugees, who describe the experience of living in a host country, trying to cope with loss, a state of being torn apart, and being homesick. Naficy’s concept is by no means limited to a set of particular themes or the ethnic origin of filmmakers, but seeks a common denominator linking the various works in terms of style or narrative. It indicates the privileged function of landscapes, the importance of multilingualism in the dialogue, voice-over narration, and the use of road movie conventions[6].

Diasporic films are most frequently made outside the mainstream cinema, as they are independent productions in which the artists put an emphasis on a personal aspect of the stories being told through the use of epistolary narration (which is common e.g. in the films by Atom Egoyan, Chantal Akerman, and Ann Hui). The main theme is usually the search for identity that transcends national and cultural boundaries, the construction of certain images of home, and showing the problematic nature of such representations in the context of nostalgia.

“Transnational cinema has the potential to both reveal the diasporic experience and challenge the privileged site of the national as the space in which cultural identity and imagined communities are formed”[7]. Diasporic cinema may be „defined as transnational in the sense that it brings into question how fixed ideas of a national film culture are constantly being transformed by the presence of protagonists (and indeed film-makers) who have a presence within the nation, even if they exist on its margins, but find their origins quite clearly beyond it”[8].

We discover that the concept of a nation as a coherent entity gradually gives way to hybridity and transculturality, which seem to be the categories that best describe the essence of modern life, based on the free movement of people, goods and services, porosity of contemporary borders, and the interpenetration of cultural influences. Hybridity should not be understood as the abolition of contradictions, erasing of the differences or unification, because “it is not a third term that resolves the tension between two cultures, or two scenes of the book, in a dialectical play of recognition”[9].

Modern theorists highlight the link between the concept of hybridity and such related terms as mestizaje or métissage, because all of them reject the idea of a coherent and unified culture expressed by organicistic metaphors. A hybrid subject exists at the frontiers, meeting points, or at the crossroads of different cultures. Sometimes hybridization is associated with the process of borrowing and exchange, thanks to which it undermines the process of thinking in terms of simple binary oppositions.

The formation of a hybrid identity is a symptom of cultural transformation, the result of the instability of existing categories; however, it does not always involve the colonial experience. On the contrary, it is more often linked with different forms of movement and migration that help build transnational culture. In this way, it is possible to make a significant shift in emphasis from the study of the subjugated ones who lived in former colonies toward the analysis of diasporic communities operating in European countries. Thanks to this shift, one may also notice the links between discontinuity, rupture, and rootlessness that characterize contemporary immigrants, as well as see similar processes of deterritorialization and the expropriation of cultural heritage in postcolonial countries.

The latest research clearly shows that the concept of transnationality cannot merely concern the issues of co-production, global distribution, and reception; on the other hand, it should include political and social factors that enable a better understanding of contemporary cinema and the surrounding world. Perhaps that is why Will Higbee, when searching for a less ambiguous term, suggested the concept of transvergence to describe the diasporic and postcolonial cinema, in order to leave behind “potentially problematic contemporary notions of globalization”[10]. In his understanding, transvergence cinema is connected with instability, lack of continuity and consistency, and involves undermining of such dichotomies as home/exile, centre/periphery, self/other.

Another solution helping to overcome the problems resulting from the excessive use of the concept of transnationality may be the one offered by Wolfgang Welsch, who uses the concept of transculturality: an idea inspired by the writings of Fernando Ortiz. The Cuban anthropologist in his book on the cultivation of tobacco and sugar used the word “transculturality” to describe the processes occurring in the colonial countries, in an effort to explain the impact of migration on the formation of a culture[11]. This concept allows one to go beyond the understanding of the national culture as a closed and separate entity, and uncover relationships between seemingly distant areas by revealing the benefits of the process in which many possible ways of life are merged together.

“It is, I think, the advantage of the transculturality concept over competing concepts that it explains uniformization and intermixing processes on one side and the emergence of new diversity on the other side at the same time and by means of the same formula”[12]. Therefore, transculturality means life in suspension, moving on the margins, coming to terms with casualness and instability. „Transness describes a moment of in-betweeness, a liminal status that may represent a point in process of transformation from one category to another”[13]. The concept of transculturality is not based on binary oppositions, but consists in combining the elements and crossings: „transcultural identities comprehend a cosmopolitan side, but also a side of local affiliation (…) It promotes not separation, but exchange and interaction”[14].

The prefix trans-, which is borrowed from Latin, indicates crossing the borders and going beyond; that is why the papers collected in this issue of our magazine suggest that a transnational approach involves accepting methodological pluralism and seeking the links between the phenomena that were previously regarded as separate. Adopting this perspective allows one to look at the seemingly distant concepts and to go beyond the national paradigm in reflection on media.

One should mention that although in the past Polish cinema was considered primarily in the national perspective, the last few years have brought the publication of several papers on its transnational character. This fact was emphasized by Ewa Mazierska and Michael Goddard, who claimed that it “has always been, in a sense, transnational, thanks to the strong presence of Polish directors on the international scene; [which unfortunately] is barely reflected in the studies of transnational or world cinema”[15]. This is, for example, the perspective taken by Sebastian Jagielski in his essay, in which he analyses the on-screen images of Elżbieta Czyżewska.

Most of the presented papers, however, concern world cinema, with a special emphasis on the relations between East and West: Jane Hanley analyses performances of Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi in two transnational films: Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (2006) and Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013). The author’s principal aim is to characterize the changing images of Asian people in Hollywood cinema and the possibility of cross-cultural communication.

Łukasz Plesnar, when choosing two movies produced by Clint Eastwood in 2006 (Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima), focuses on the question of stereotypical images of the Japanese in American films and stresses the attempts of going beyond such a simplified image. “[Letters from Iwo Jima] is the only American combat movie made from a Japanese point of view and the only one in which the author tries to understand and show respect to old Japanese customs and the contemporary contradiction of Japanese ego”. Kaja Łuczyńska, in turn, examines a shift in the image of race and ethnicity after 9/11, when focusing on screen images of South Asian in New York (2009, Kabir Khan), My Name Is Khan (2010, Karan Johar), and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012, Mira Nair).

Bartłomiej Nowak and Bilge Golge, respectively, offer interesting views of the relations between East and West. The former studies how contemporary film adaptations relate to literary texts, and how certain adaptations expand the boundaries of the original readership and audience by including new locations and contexts. Nowak stresses a hybrid dimension of some films based on Jane Austen’s books as they are transferred in the context of Indian culture, while Bilge Golge analyses representations of yoga practices in Western media.

Aesthetics and film theory play an essential role in the texts presented in the final part of the magazine. Miłosz Stelmach starts from the theoretical findings of András Bálint Kovács, John Orr, and Rafał Syska, and characterizes the neomodern film as a transnational phenomenon. The paper by Bolesław Racięski offers a peculiar development of these proposals, showing how the creators of contemporary Mexican cinema use the minimalist approach to express ideas about the local social and cultural issues, whereby linking transnational narrative strategies of neomodern cinema with national history and mythology. In his analysis of BabaKiueria, Rafał Nahirny uses the postcolonial perspective to describe the process of taking control over their own image by the indigenous people of Australia.

Numerous authors study the phenomenon of transnational in the context of identity and include both aesthetic and political aspects. The researchers are convinced that it is necessary to go beyond a Eurocentric perspective and overcome the limitations stemming from the opposition between a national and transnational point of view. What is more, it is crucial to see the links between the local and the global aspects, and to embrace a transcultural exchange. Following the assumptions of Will Higbee and Song Hwee Lim, we should accept that „in the study of films, a critical transnationalism does not ghettoize transnational film-making in interstitial and marginal spaces, but rather interrogates how these film-making activities negotiate with the national on all levels: from cultural policy to financial sources, from the multiculturalism of difference to how it reconfigures a nation’s image of itself”[16].



Bachmann-Medick Doris, Cultural Turns. New Orientations in the Study of Culture, translate by Adam Blauhut, (Berlin and Boston: Walter de Gruyter) (2016).

Bhabha Homi K., The Location of Culture, (New York: Routledge) (1994).

Clark Christopher, „Transculturation, Transe Sexuality, and Turkish Germany: Kutluğ Ataman’s Lola und Bilidikid”, German Life and Letters 59:4 (2006)

Ezra Elizabeth, Rowden Terry, Transnational Cinema: The Film Reader, (New York: Routledge) (2006).

Higbee Will, „Beyond the (Trans)national: Toward a Cinema of Transvergence in Postcolonial and Diasporic Francophone Cinema(s)”, Studies in French Cinema 7:2 (2007).

Higbee Will and Lim Song Hwee, „Concepts of Transnational Cinema: Towards a Critical Transnationalism in Film Studies”, Transnational Cinemas 1:1 (2010).

Andrew Higson, „The limiting imagination of national cinema”, in: Cinema and Nation, ed. Mette Hjort and Scott Mackenzie (London and New York: Routledge) (2000).

Hjort Mette, „On the Plurality of Cinematic Transnationalism”, in World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives, ed. Nataša Ďurovičová and Kathleen Newman (London and New York: Routledge) (2010).

Lu Sheldon Hsiao-peng, „Historical Introduction. Chinese Cinemas (1896-1996) and Transnational Film Studies”, in Transnational Chinese Cinemas: Identity, Nationhood, Gender, ed. Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press) (1997).

Mazierska Ewa, Goddard Michael, Polish Cinema in a Transnational Context, (Rochester: University of Rochester Press) (2014).

Naficy Hamid, An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking, (Princeton: Princeton University Press) (2001).

Vertovec Steven, Transnationalism (London and New York: Routledge) (2009).

Welsch Wolfgang, „Transculturality: The Puzzling Form of Cultures Today”, in Spaces of Cultures: City, Nation, World, ed.  Mike Featherstone and Scott Lash (London: SAGE (1999).


[1] Doris Bachmann-Medick, Cultural Turns. New Orientations in the Study of Culture, translate by Adam Blauhut, (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter) (2016), p.11-12.

[2] Mette Hjort, „On the Plurality of Cinematic Transnationalism”, in World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives, ed. Nataša Ďurovičová and Kathleen Newman (London and New York: Routledge) (2010), p. 13.

[3] Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu, „Historical Introduction. Chinese Cinemas (1896-1996) and Transnational Film Studies”, in: Transnational Chinese Cinemas: Identity, Nationhood, Gender, ed. Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press) (1997), p. 1-31. Andrew Higson, „The limiting imagination of national cinema”, in: Cinema and Nation, ed. Mette Hjort and Scott Mackenzie (London and New York: Routledge) (2000), p. 57-68.

[4] Andrew Higson, p. 60.

[5] Elizabeth Ezra, ‎Terry Rowden, Transnational Cinema: The Film Reader, (New York: Routledge) (2006), p. 1.

[6] Hamid Naficy, An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking, (Princeton: Princeton University Press) (2001), p. 24-26.

[7] Will Higbee, Song Hwee Lim, „Concepts of Transnational Cinema: Towards a Critical Transnationalism in Film Studies”, Transnational Cinemas 1:1 (2010), p. 11.

[8] Ibid., s. 11.

[9] Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture, (New York: Routledge) (1994), p. 162.

[10] Will Higbee, „Beyond the (Trans)national: Toward a Cinema of Transvergence in Postcolonial and Diasporic Francophone Cinema(s)”, Studies in French Cinema 7:2 (2007), p. 80.

[11] Wolfgang Welsch, „Transculturality: The Puzzling Form of Cultures Today”, in Spaces of Cultures: City, Nation, World, ed. Mike Featherstone and Scott Lash, (London: SAGE) (1999), pp. 194-213.

[12] Ibid., p. 204.

[13] Christopher Clark, „Transculturation, Transe Sexuality, and Turkish Germany: Kutluğ Ataman’s Lola und Bilidikid”, German Life and Letters 59:4 (2006), p. 558.

[14] Welsch, p. 205.

[15] Ewa Mazierska, Michael Goddard, Introduction. Polish Cinema beyond Polish Borders, in Polish Cinema in a Transnational Context, (Rochester: University of Rochester Press) (2014), p. 9.

[16] Will Higbee, Song Hwee Lim, „Concepts of Transnational Cinema: Towards a Critical Transnationalism in Film Studies”, Transnational Cinemas 1:1 (2010), p. 18.

“Let everybody love me”. The transnational body of Elżbieta Czyżewska

Sebastian Jagielski

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 8-22.

Sebastian Jagielski

Jagiellonian University


“Let everybody love me”. The transnational body of Elżbieta Czyżewska[i]



The ways to create a star personality in the Polish People’s Republic are closer to the strategy of creating stars in the Soviet cinema, where the star had to function as an power engine, as an incentive to action, than to the Hollywood system (star system). It is well illustrated by the career of Elżbieta Czyżewska: not only was she the most fascinating actress of her generation but she was also quickly transformed into a star. Czyżewska’s body used as a screen on which first the (socialist) desires and then (socialist) fears were projected, was placed – almost from the beginning of her career – in transnational contexts. She crossed borders not only on the screen: in 1965 Czyżewska married The New York Times correspondent, David Halberstam, and left for New York, or rather was forced to leave. The star’s previously ideal body suddenly appeared to be – not for “strangers” but for “us,” not outside the national community but inside it – a transgressive (since openly transnational) anti-body. This article explores (1) the phenomenon of a star in the Polish People’s Republic (“socialist star system”), (2) transgressions of Czyżewska in the West, (3) and, above all, their Polish reception.

Key words: Polish cinema, Elżbieta Czyżewska, communism, transnational, stardom, body, affect

In the state-owned film industry of communist Poland, expressing the dominating ideology was more important than fulfilment of audiences’ expectations. It was not pleasure that was important, but the educational goal; not entertainment but social involvement. Hence, it comes as no surprise that the authorities in the Polish People’s Republic were not interested in the creation of stars.[1] Even more so, since in the official discourse such a phenomenon was associated with the “degenerated” bourgeois West. Hence, there was no place for Hollywood-style stars, but there was for socialist ones (especially in the 60s, when the authorities decided to use the persuasive power of film genres for their own purposes). Their image was not supposed to be—as in the Hollywood “star system”—based on the relation to the market (star system as the sale of goods), but—as in the Soviet Union—on the relation to communist ideology. It was the stars (and film genres) that proved at the time to be the most effective carrier of ideology, especially as the public longed for somebody exceptional and unique. The socialist stars—even though just like Western ones, they shaped the behaviour of Poles, told them how to dress, behave and be—did not exist in the “blue firmament”, but “fraternised” with people, ate at milk bars, and met people in village clubs.[2]

Elżbieta Czyżewska fulfilled these contradictory expectations of the public and authorities with bravado. Not only was she the most fascinating actress of her generation (“she was visible. (…)”, Andrzej Kostenko used to say, “in our [actors’ – SJ] environment one could feel her peculiarity”[3]), but she was also quickly transformed into a star (“the only actress after the war who in such a short time achieved so much”[4], said Leon Łochowski). In the years 1960-1966, she never left the set, appearing in a few films per year and performing in theatre and TV. Everybody wanted to work with her: directors of the auteur (Wojciech J. Has, Tadeusz Konwicki, Jerzy Skolimowski) and popular (Stanisław Bareja, Tadeusz Chmielewski, Stanisław Lenartowicz) cinema. The audience loved her: in a poll by Express Wieczorny for the most popular TV actor, she won the Silver Mask twice, in 1963 and 1964, and the Golden Mask in 1965. It seems, however, that Czyżewska’s fairy-tale career did not come from nowhere. On one hand, talent, bravado, “go get it” energy, charisma and authenticity, and on the other, the embodiment of the “socialist” star type. The latter was defined—as in the Soviet Union—by social and national identity and opposition towards “bourgeois” Western identity.[5] Neither the decadent, eccentric, and sexy Kalina Jędrusik, nor the aristocratic and supercilious Beata Tyszkiewicz, and not even the delicate and mysterious Ewa Krzyżewska could have been promoted as “socialist stars”. Czyżewska, whose beauty and background were emphasised as proletariat and Slavic, was to become the ideal embodiment of the “socialist object of desire”. Czyżewska’s body—used as a screen on which first the (socialist) desires and then (socialist) fears were projected—was placed almost from the beginning of her career in transnational contexts.[6] On one hand, it was the body of a lively Soviet woman soldier (Gdzie jest generał?/Where is the General?, 1963, Tadeusz Chmielewski), on the other, a Jew in love (Niekochana/Unloved, 1965, Janusz Nasfeter), a body for a Soviet pilot (Przerwany lot/Interrupted Flight, 1964, Leonard Buczkowski), an Italian (Giuseppe w Warszawie/Giuseppe in Warsaw, 1964, Stanisław Lenartowicz), and an Australian (but of Polish decent (Żona dla Australijczyka/Wife for an Australian, 1963, Stanisław Bareja)). Czyżewska, however, crossed borders not only on the screen: in 1965, she married The New York Times correspondent, David Halberstam, and left for New York, or rather was forced to leave. The star’s previously ideal body suddenly appeared to be not for “strangers”, but for “us”, not outside the national community but inside it: a transgressive (since openly transnational) anti-body. It is true that the corporeality of transnational stars can sometimes be defined as foreign, since it causes fascination and/or fear, but these are the emotions we usually deal with—unlike in Czyżewska’s case—outside the countries of their origin.[7]

“A modern girl”

Encouraged by the success of the contest for the lead actress in the comedy Ewa chce spać/Ewa wants to sleep (1957, Tadeusz Chmielewski), in 1958 the magazine Film, together with Zespół Autorów Filmowych, announced the action Beautiful girls to the screens, aimed, as critics at the time claimed, at fulfilling the shortage of young and beautiful girls on Polish screens.[8] When the filmmakers and journalists were looking for the Polish Brigitte Bardot, a popular teenager magazine Filipinka conducted a survey among its readers: Are you a modern girl? According to Małgorzata Fidelis this image reflects the “attempts to define the national and socialist identities in the post-war Polish society” and to “build a positive image of modernity in the communist version”.[9] The genesis of the image of the “modern girl”[10] promoted by the media and officially supported by the party activists, similarly to the calls for a uniquely Polish film star, may be found in the political thaw that was accompanied to some extent by the social thaw.[11] Elżbieta Czyżewska was the result of this search. Aspiring “modern girls”, Filipinka readers—who in this figure saw a young woman who preferred foreign travel to marriage, listened to rock’n’roll and was up to date with the fashion trends[12]—could identify with the disobedient, dynamic, sarcastic and ironic girls played by Czyżewska. Young Poles took her roles—Hanka from Wife for an Australian, Marysia from Giuseppe in Warsaw, or Joanna from Małżeństwo z rozsądku/The Marriage of Convenience (1966, Stanisław Bareja)—as their dream self-portrait. In fact, however, the star image of Czyżewska, which the girls copied so willingly, was full of contradictions. It could not have been any other way since they were trying to merge communist propaganda with the influence of Western pop culture. This “magical synthesis” of opposite values, on the one hand, reinforced and consolidated the system, and on the other undermined and destabilised it.[13]

Czyżewska’s enthusiasm and charm were used to create the ideal “socialist object of desire”. This image was set to serve the ideology in two ways: firstly, they tried unsuccessfully to transform Czyżewska into a Soviet-style star; secondly, she embodied Polish-Soviet love when acting in Polish-Soviet romances. According to Oksana Bulgakova, female stars such as Lyubov Orlova in the Soviet Union “were burdened with the promotion of behaviours appropriate for men” (“crosswise identification”).[14] Female characters were considered both a visual attraction, the object of glances, and the active “ideal ego”. The splendour and charm typical of female characters in classical Hollywood cinema were in the Soviet cinema transformed into activity and social optimism, and sexual energy, as in classical sublimation, was translated to work. “Not being either a pin-up star, or Madonna, the star has to function as an energy engine, a stimulus to act”.[15] By analogy, Marysia from Giuseppe in Warsaw, a resistance activist for whom the Cause will stop at nothing, is unlike her brother Staszek, who does not care about the war at all. Both he and Giuseppe, a fugitive from the Italian army, are very good in the kitchen while the girl bravely fights the German enemy. Thus, both female and male spectators could identify with Czyżewska’s brave characters. As Iwona Kurz wrote, Czyżewska’s characters—Marysia from Giuseppe in Warsaw, Marusia from Where is the General? and Hanka from Wife for an Australian—fulfil the romantic model of “knight-lover who places his homeland above love”; however, this model in the new political situation was to serve the socialist education.[16]

Some films with Czyżewska that praised Polish-Soviet love by merging the national and sexual discourses had a propaganda function. In the melodrama Interrupted Flight, which is set in two periods, during WWII and 17 years later, her character, Urszula, falls in love with a Soviet pilot, Vovka, whom she gives a medallion—a valuable token of Polish national mythology. This prop becomes a symbolic confirmation of the friendly relations between the Poles and the Soviets. However, this friendship is clearly streaked by Polish inferiority: the educated and handsome Russian is an elegant pilot while “Sokół”, whom Urszula marries after the war, is a neglected postman-alcoholic who for years has hidden from his wife the letters from Vovka. The superiority of the Russians and the inferiority of the Poles are also visible in the comedy Where is the General?, in which the Pole is impulsive, carefree and likes to booze, while the Soviet female soldier, Marusia, is charming, hardworking and reliable. Even though the Pole calls her a “witch” and “gendarme worse than Hitler”, she will still love him. The film ends with their long kiss, which is observed with enthusiasm by the soldiers of both friendly armies.[17] It could seem that the Polish-Soviet alliance was written on the actress’s body.

Importantly, Marysia from Giuseppe in Warsaw, Marusia from Where is the General?, and Hanka from Wife for an Australian do not resemble the female “machines full of energy and optimism” from the Soviet films or Polish socialist realistic films. Paradoxically, they are closer to Doris Day’s “girls from the neighbourhood” who eagerly fulfil their duties. First, they fight the “parasites” in order to fall in love with them finally. For example in the film by Bareja, a rich Pole from Australia comes back home to buy a wife. However, Hanka, who he falls in love with, kidnaps, and holds prisoner in a villa (seen by Poles as a consumerist heaven), not only is not an easy trophy (intelligent, ironic, rational), but convinces the prodigal son to stay in Poland after the marriage. Initially, like Day’s characters, she is unsentimental and factual but later falls prey to the advances of the “erotically obsessed” “parasite”. She throws away the costume of the Mazowsze Group where she sings and transforms into a chic dame from a “bourgeois” film: low-cut fitted dress, white gloves, high heels, and a flower in her hair.

According to Miriam Hansen, the popularity of American cinema on foreign (Soviet) ground was not about “what these films showed, what they brought into optical consciousness, as it were, but the way they opened up hitherto unperceived modes of sensory perception and experience”[18]. The comedies with Czyżewska, these escapist and compensatory fantasies, proved to be so attractive for audiences not only because they offered an antidote to the sombreness of the period of “little stabilisation”, but also because they showed new energy, new corporeality and sensuality, provided guidelines how to be modern in the modernising (socialist) reality. Her girls recalled the emancipating “new woman” from the 30s, in the West symbolising “the deepest fears related to modernity”.[19] Marysia, Hanka, or Joanna from The Marriage of Convenience will initially find their emancipation as “modern women” in tight blouses and short skirts, in activity and freedom (mixing of sexual roles), in playing with their corporeality and sexuality. Marysia, in order to get the Italian’s gun, will not hesitate to use her sex appeal; hence, she is taken for a prostitute, first by Giuseppe and then by the Germans.

However, the authorities’ support for the image of “the queen of the 60s”[20]—to recall the words of Andrzej Łapicki—falls to pieces when Elżbieta Czyżewska marries an “American with a Pulitzer”. In April 1965, Halberstam published in The New York Times a text about common and state-supported anti-Semitism in Poland. A few months later the same newspaper published his article about Poland as an “exceptionally pro-Western” nation, about alienated Polish society and the communist party which “even 20 years after the war, when it was established in the country by the triumphant Red Army, is weak internally”.[21] The reactions were quick to come: texts condemning Halberstam first appeared in Kultura, Zycie Warszawy, Trybuna Ludu, and Stolica, and at the beginning of 1966 he was placed on the list of restricted persons. After her husband left, Czyżewska was questioned and continuously followed. In the end, the authorities decided that her stay in the country “was impossible”[22], even when she decided to divorce the journalist. In 1968, in order to act in Wszystko na sprzedaż/Everything for Sale (1968, Andrzej Wajda), Czyżewska came from the United States and became a victim of an anti-Semitic witch-hunt even before filming started.

In the press she was attacked as a “traitor” (“(…) why does our outstanding Polish actress betray our crucial, Polish interest?”[23]), as the wife of a “Jewish imperialist”, wife of the author of “horrible lampoons about our country” who “slandered (…) our nation”. Moreover, in April 1968 Włodzimierz Stępiński published an open letter to Andrzej Wajda in Walka Młodych demanding Czyżewska’s removal from his film.[24] “Disgusting” texts by Halberstam caused Halberstam himself to become “disgusting” and he later infected his wife, since what is “disgusting” is sticky and viscid.[25] Sara Ahmed argued, “to name something as disgusting (…) is a performative. (…) But to say something is disgusting is still to «make something»; it generates a set of effects, which then adhere as a disgusting object”.[26] Since the actress was called a “traitor” and was associated with what is “disgusting” (for the “Polish nation”), she had to recognise her social definition: “recognise her place in the position of subordination”.[27] It was precisely the refusal to accept this position of subordination from which Elka from Everything for Sale was born, a film in which Czyżewska—benefiting from the protection of the film’s fiction—“is” herself.

In Wajda’s film the actress acts like never before. She is hysterical, theatrical and at the same time authentic. As in the legendary scene of the dance at the banquet, in which she bites her lower lip and continues in lonely abandon. The director saw this dynamic dance at a Warsaw party—the dance being her “protest against the entire company—and decided to include it in his film.[28] This dance is a protest and “the intention of the protest is (…) «to disturb the spectacle» played, metaphorically speaking, on the main scene, to introduce to the field of vision the new performative language which disturbs and damages the previous one”.[29] Czyżewska’s performance, being an act of disobedience and insubordination, an act of freedom, can be seen as a narrative excess. It is delivered for the public gathered at a banquet (and in the screening room). The director emphasises the performance, on the one hand, by recording envious glances, faces and grimaces from the drawing room, and on the other, by using zooms—popular at the time—thanks to which the actress’s face can suddenly get closer (desire) and move away equally fast (rejection). The movement of the lens reflects something from the group’s reaction to Czyżewska’s unreserved expression: they revel in the fascinating and exciting images (“she looked great (…), at the time between the West [and] Poland there was a precipice, it came like from another world”[30]), and at the same time isolate, mock, exclude and stigmatise. Wajda’s film, obviously, does not mention “Halberstam’s case”, thanks to which the audience’s entire attention focuses on the film and theatre circles, since Czyżewska was ostracised long before she left Poland. As one Security Service informer reports, already in mid-1965 “in theatre all actors and employees surrounded her with a wall of condemnation. They do not speak about her otherwise than «this bitch»”.[31] Just as if Halberstam was merely a pretext for revenge for the fact that “she overshadowed (…) other actresses”.[32] Andrzej Wajda let her take symbolic revenge in his film. At dawn, a drunk and jolly elite goes on a carousel started by Elka. With satisfaction, she watches as the “artists” shout, curse, and then freeze like dummies. They become living corpses.

Due to the smear campaign in the press, even before the end of filming Everything for Sale, Czyżewska received a warrant to leave Poland immediately. What is more, at the airport she had to undergo a humiliating body search. She was treated as (transnational) waste expelled by the national body, excluded beyond its borders. She symbolised everything that in the period of the “March events” proved to be politically most suspected: she married an American of Jewish origin, thus becoming part of the anti-Zionist and anti-American obsessive propaganda of 1968. She also became suspicious as a symbol of a “modern girl”, which at the time had become politically involved, associated with the consumerist culture of the capitalist West (“the era of bust ended, (…) of bust according to Lollobrigida’s standards”, wrote a critic in Walka Młodych[33]). It is important that the attack on Czyżewska in Walka Młodych was preceded by the publication of the text Who we do not want to be, which mocked the Beautiful girls to the screens action and condemned the promoters of the “modern girl” notion. “Slowly, the criticism of misunderstood modernity”, wrote Małgorzata Fidelis, “transforms into an attack on intellectual and artistic elites which allegedly were responsible for the promotion of Western trends among the young”.[34] From here, it is only one step to the so-called anti-Zionist campaign since “similarly to the supporters of the modern girl, also the Polish Jews—the alleged Zionists plotting against the socialist Poland—were slandered (…) as agents of Western imperialism”.[35] In the image of the “modern girl”, nobody looked any more for what was socialist, but what was foreign and threatening for the socialist reality (consumerism and sex).

However, this no longer referred to Czyżewska. “Our” girl, who not long ago had embodied Polish-Soviet love, chose the West, “a Western imperialist”. We are dealing here with the “erotic betrayal of authority”. The authority seems to be a jealous lover who punishes the faithless for infidelity. It comes as no surprise when we realise what role the stars played in the Soviet Union where “the relation between the stars and authority were a part of the traditional patriarchal model”. Tatyana Okunevskaya and Zoya Fyodorova were sent to camps for flirting with foreigners. After the screening of Volga-Volga (1938), Stalin was to warn Grigori Aleksandrov, the director and husband of Orlova, “he will lose his head if anything happens to these legs”.[36] The legs of Orlova, of course. Jean Baudrillard in Seduction asks, “Is one only seeking to avenge the spell that the other exercises over you?”[37] Elżbieta Czyżewska had to pay for flirting with authority and the audience; the latter is always happy to watch the falls of those who charmed it.

The loss of aura

The American stage of Elżbieta Czyżewska’s career became sexualised and associated with destrudo. In the 60s, she offered the will to live, refreshing irony, and distance; however, since the 80s she has been associated solely with general decline, defeat, decomposition, and weakness. First, excess (of energy, talent, and success); later, a lack (of energy, talent, success). Her body—damaged by alcohol and drugs—is transformed both by the actress and by the audience of her shows into body-scandal, body-excess. Two memories illustrate this diagnosis well.

(1) In a documentary about Czyżewska, Aktorka/Actress (2015, Kinga Dębska, Maria Konwicka), Adam Holender describes an event that took place when she was still married to Halberstam: during a lavish party taking place at their house the actress “undressed completely in the kitchen and ran through the crowd of friends. Everybody was speechless. Everybody understood it since it was at the time in Vogue, but nobody knew that something like this could happen in a living room. David really enjoyed it”. From Holender’s perspective, we are not dealing with a non-conformist performance, but indecent albeit interesting excess. Excluded from acting, Czyżewska transforms her life in transgressive theatre; however, the living room—especially from a Polish perspective—is not an appropriate place to stage (and undress) oneself.

(2) The memories from the time when Czyżewska was already divorced are even more marked with sexuality on the one hand, and bourgeois indignation on the other:

She did things (…)—said Dorota Stalińska who met Czyżewska on set of Debiutantka/Debutante (1981, dir. Barbara Sass)—unworthy of a woman, actress, artist. Everybody froze with fear. And it was like this was what she wanted. She wanted to be the centre of attention at any price. Passionately stripping her wrinkled body in public (…). I was terribly embarrassed by this behaviour (…)[38].

Stalińska speaks about Czyżewska’s old “wrinkled” body even though the actress was only 43 at the time. The recollections of her compatriots about Czyżewska on emigration share one thing: embarrassment.[39] Shame is the reaction to her exhibitionism, her open corporeality. As in the scene from the banquet of Debutante: drunk architect Maria (played by Czyżewska) gives herself to a random man before the guests and Ewa, who is embarrassed for the woman, tries to separate them, causing Maria’s hysterical spasms and aggression. Monika Talarczyk-Gubała noticed that this scene resembles Elka’s rebellious dance from Everything for Sale (in Sass’s film, as in Wajda’s, the actress dances in the presence of the Master, played again by Andrzej Łapicki). That dynamic and rebellious performance, however, contained freedom and resistance, while here in the author’s opinion we are dealing only with “embarrassing masochism”. Wajda watched Elżbieta with admiration while Sass’s look is cold, ruthless, without a shadow of compassion.[40] It seems that this look is only full of sadistic satisfaction derived from exposing a female body, distorted in hysterical spasm, for public view (spectators during the banquet and in the screening room). However, Czyżewska’s performances in life and in the cinema cannot be easily frozen. Ignoring one’s embarrassment embarrasses the spectators (Holender, Stalińska, Ewa, the character in Debutante), imposing on the embarrassed woman the position of subordination (lascivious lunatic, alcoholic ending up in gutter, vulgar hysteric, etc.). Czyżewska’s performances might be an attempt to reverse the traumatising mechanisms of embarrassment. They may also be an attempt to turn the shame into power. As in the masturbation-related episode of the popular series Sex and the City (1999, Daniel Algrant), where Czyżewska played the role of a sexologist in her 60s lecturing by the sweat of her brow on the secrets of tantric sex, she masturbates her husband and the emancipated New Yorkers dutifully take notes.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank, when analysing the works of Silvan Tomkins, noted that there is no shame and disgust without a positive, pleasant affection:

these affects produce bodily knowledges: disgust, as when spitting out bad-tasting food, recognizes the difference between inside and outside the body and what should and should not be let in; shame as precarious hyperreflexivity of the surface of the body can turn one inside out—or outside in.[41]

The affection of disgust and shame that were a reaction to Czyżewska’s transnational body emphasise the closeness of the body that was rejected, “vomited”. According to Sara Ahmed, vomiting “involves expelling something that has already been digested, and hence incorporated into the body of the one who feels disgust”.[42] This mechanism characterises well the encounters between her compatriots and Czyżewska in New York: from closeness to distance. What was close becomes problematic, unsafe, disgusting. Hence, one has to move away. As did Janusz Głowacki after the Broadway success of the play Hunting Cockroaches on which he worked with Czyżewska; Agnieszka Osiecka after publication of White Blouse inspired by her letters; Joanna Pacuła and—a moment later—Yurek Bogayevicz.

Nobody doubted that the title character of Anna (1987) by Bogayevicz “was” Elżbieta Czyżewska. Neither the film’s scriptwriter, Agnieszka Holland, the actress’s friends (“the main character is exactly like Elżbieta”[43]), the author of The Real “Anna”: The Truth Behind the Hit Film, nor Czyżewska herself admitted that the director “stole her life”.[44] The actress told Bogayevicz the story of her meeting with Joanna Pacuła, and he promised her that she would play the lead role in the film based on this story. Czyżewska was probably hoping to repeat and expand the strategy from Everything for Sale: again, she would be herself before the camera. The director, however, quickly backed out of his promise, casting Sally Kirkland as the main character who won the Golden Globe for this role and an Oscar nomination.[45] She plays the former greatest star of the communist Czechoslovakia, Anna, who played in almost all films produced there. However, in New York, where she went—or in fact, like Czyżewska, was forced to go in 1968—nobody remembers her former successes. This situation is quickly noticed by a young Czechoslovakian actress, Krystyna, who goes there without money or a place to stay, but with Anna’s photos from the times of her greatness. The latter, living in a tenement house in Manhattan and playing episodes on Broadway, takes the girl in and helps her find her way in this new reality. Krystyna quickly becomes successful, “borrowing” Anna’s dramatic life story (childhood in orphanage, political reasons for emigration, etc.) as well as her boyfriend.[46]

The film mostly seems important due to one short, surprising, and disturbing scene. After Krystyna’s “betrayal”, the disappointed and frustrated Anna appears in the cinema in mourning clothes: a black scarf on her head and dark glasses hiding her tearful eyes. In the cinema, the atmosphere is quite different: they are just showing a comedy with Anna in the lead (a black and white film that seems to be stylised on Where is the General?). The woman confronts her own reflection, as if she were looking in the mirror, and she cannot take her eyes off the screen. The location of the projector, audience and screen, the darkness in the screening room and the stream of moving images cause the spectator to fall “into a trance-like state”[47]. Anna is enchanted by what she sees. She identifies with her own (lost) reflection, and this is a source of narcissistic pleasure. “She dissolves” in the image because this image allows her to retrieve her own subjectivity which was taken from her, appropriated by another actress. The body of Anna-the-spectator that is reflected on screen (idealised) gives a settling sense of calm and safety; however, this affective moment does not last long. From the state of illusion—a narcissistic trance caused by the soothing images—the protagonist is woken by the sight of her huge face (close-up) eaten by fire. The narration freezes, and we, the spectators, watch the frightened face of the actress and her celluloid, disappearing copy. Especially disturbing is a brief—as from a horror film—close-up of the actress’s silent scream, as if she were already dead.[48] This is the moment of the dramatic crack: Anna, who is still looking for mirror reflections, her own doppelgangers (Krystyna being one, the one who managed to escape), thought she had found herself again in the cinema (narcissistic satisfaction). However, the reflection on the screen appears to be a phantom, an apparition that disappears at the same time, thereby revealing the emptiness.

“At the height of her success in Poland the actress stopped being «Elżbieta Czyżewska»”, wrote a critic in Film.[49] Bogayevicz aptly caught what was the essence of her American period: the loss of star aura and the refusal to accept it, already indicated in Everything for Sale. The greatest star of the Polish cinema of the 60s says directly to the camera, “Why nobody loves me? (…) Let everybody love me”. In Wajda’s film, however, we see the star’s splendour, but in Bogayevicz’s only despair. In the both nostalgic and sadistic cinema scene from Anna there is, on one hand, satisfaction, pleasure, and happiness stemming from peregrinations on time lost, and on the other, pain, alienation, lack, and loss. Unfortunately, no magical process of finding oneself, coming back to oneself, is going to take place here. The actress’s celluloid face consumed by fire symbolises the end of her star aura, and the close-up of her silent scream helps to “arrest time’s flow on the edge of its waterfall’s onrush to trauma”.[50] Richard Dyer, in analysing Judy Garland’s loss of glamour that constituted her image, noted that this loss means defeat, primarily in playing one’s sexual role, in the field of femininity.[51] For that reason, perhaps, Elżbieta Czyżewska “needed to feel a star [so much]. She had to know that she had been a star in Poland”[52], even though in her own country—as a journalist of The New York Times wrote after her death—she was not welcome.[53] The national body transformed into a transnational one, which does not accept the position of subordination imposed on it by its compatriots, becomes disgusting in order to become expelled beyond the borders of the national community. Thus, the transnational body becomes marked as anti-body even though—or maybe because—not long ago it was worshipped and loved.

Translated by Amalia Woźna



Ahmed Sara, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) (2004).

Baudrillard Jean, Seduction, trans. Brian Singer, (Montréal: New World Perspectives) (1990).

Bratu Hansen Miriam, “The mass production of the senses: classical cinema as vernacular modernism”, in: Reinventing Film Studies, ed. Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams (London: Arnold) (2000).

Bulgakova Oksana, “Gwiazdy i władza” / “Stars and authority”, trans. Tadeusz Szczepański, Kwartalnik Filmowy 49-50 (2005).

Butler Judith, Excitable Speech. A Politics of the Performative, (New York-London: Routledge) (1997).

Coates Paul, Screening the Face, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan) (2012).

Cybulski Zbigniew, “W stronę gwiazd” / “Towards the stars”, interview by Stanisław Janicki, Kino 1 (1966).

Demidowicz Krzysztof, “Elżbieta Czyżewska: kochana niekochana” / “Elżbieta Czyżewska: loved unloved”, Film 6 (2001).

Dyer Richard, Heavenly Bodies. Film Stars and Society, (London-New York: Routledge) (2004).

Dyer Richard, Stars, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) (1998).

Elsaesser Thomas, Hagener Malte, Film Theory. An Introduction through the senses, (New York-London: Routledge) (2010).

Ezra Elizabeth, Terry Rowden, “General Introduction: What is Transnational Cinema?”, in: Transnational Cinema: The Film Reader, ed. Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden (New York: Routledge) (2006).

Fidelis Małgorzata, “Czy jesteś nowoczesną dziewczyną? Młode Polki a kultura konsumpcyjna w latach 60.” / “Are You a Modern Girl? Consumer Culture and Young Women in 1960s Poland”, trans. Anna Rogulska, Teksty Drugie 2 (2015).

Gańczak Filip, Filmowcy w matni bezpieki / The filmmakers in the snare of the Security Service, (Warszawa: Prószyński i S-ka) (2011).

Higbee Will, Song Hwee Lim, „Concepts of Transnational Cinema: Towards a Critical Transnationalism in Film Studies”, Transnational Cinemas 1:1 (2010).

Hopkins Ellen, “The Real Anna: The Truth Behind the Hit Film”, New York Magazine 4.01.1988.

Hudson Dale, “Just Play Yourself, «Maggie Cheung»: Irma Vep, Rethinking Transnational Stardom and Unthinking National Cinemas”, Screen 47:2 (2006).

Komendołowicz Iza, Elka, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie) (2012).

Kosofsky Sedgwick Eve, Adam Frank, „Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Silvan Tomkins”, in: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling. Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, (Durham-London: Duke University Press) (2003).

Kurz Iwona, “Między chrztem a samospaleniem. «Teatra polskie» drugiej połowy lat sześćdziesiątych” / “Between baptism and self-immolation. «Polish theatres» of the second half of the sixties”, Didaskalia 126 (2015).

Kurz Iwona, Twarze w tłumie. Wizerunki bohaterów wyobraźni zbiorowej w kulturze polskiej lat 1955-1969 / Faces in the crowd. Images of the collective imagination protagonists in the Polish culture of 1955-1959, (Warszawa: Świat Literacki) (2005).

Mazierska Ewa, “Train to Hollywood: Polish Actresses in Foreign Films”, in: Polish Cinema in a Transnational Context, ed. Ewa Mazierska and Michael Goddard (Rochester-New York: University of Rochester Press) (2014).

McHugh Kathleen, „The World and the Soup: Historicizing Media Feminisms in Transnational Contexts”, Camera Obscura 24: 3 (2009).

Negra Diane, Off-White Hollywood. American Culture and Ethnic Female Stardom, (London-New York: Routledge) (2001).

Skwara Anita, “Film Stars Do Not Shine in the Sky Over Poland. The Absence of Popular Cinema in Poland”, in: Popular European Cinema, ed. Richard Dyer and Ginette Vincendeau (London: Routledge) (1992).

Stępiński Włodzimierz, “Do reżysera Andrzeja Wajdy list otwarty” / “An open letter to the director Andrzej Wajda”, Kwartalnik Filmowy 6 (1994).

Szarłat Aleksandra, Celebryci z tamtych lat. Prywatne życie wielkich gwiazd PRL-u / Celebrities of the past. Private lives of great stars in PPR, (Kraków: Znak) (2014).

Talarczyk-Gubała Monika, Wszystko o Ewie. Filmy Barbary Sass a kino kobiet w drugiej połowie XX wieku / All about Eve. Barbara Sass’s films and women’s cinema in the 2nd half of the XX century, (Szczecin: Wydawnictwo Naukowe Uniwersytetu Szczecińskiego) (2013).

Wajda Andrzej, Autobiografia. Kino i reszta świata / Autobiography. Cinema and the rest of the world, (Kraków: Znak) (2013).

Weber Bruce, “Elzbieta Czyzewska, Polish Actress Unwelcome in Her Own Country, Diesat 72”, The New York Times 10.06.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/18/arts/18czyz.html?_r=0,dateaccessed: 21 March 2016.


[1] See Anita Skwara, “Film Stars Do Not Shine in the Sky Over Poland. The Absence of Popular Cinema in Poland”, in: Popular European Cinema, ed. Richard Dyer and Ginette Vincendeau (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 220-231; Iwona Kurz, Twarze w tłumie. Wizerunki bohaterów wyobraźni zbiorowej w kulturze polskiej lat 1955-1969 / Faces in the crowd. Images of the collective imagination protagonists in the Polish culture of 1955-1959, (Warszawa: Świat Literacki) (2005); Ewa Mazierska, “Train to Hollywood: Polish Actresses in Foreign Films”, in: Polish Cinema in a Transnational Context, ed. Ewa Mazierska and Michael Goddard (Rochester-New York: University of Rochester Press, 2014), pp. 153-173.

[2] Zbigniew Cybulski, “W stronę gwiazd” / “Towards the stars”, interview by Stanisław Janicki, Kino 1 (1966), p. 47.

[3] Iza Komendołowicz, Elka, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie) (2012), p. 149.

[4] Ibidem, p. 87.

[5] Oksana Bulgakova, “Gwiazdy i władza” / “Stars and authority”, trans. Tadeusz Szczepański, Kwartalnik Filmowy 49-50 (2005), p. 49.

[6] Elizabeth Ezra, Terry Rowden, “General Introduction: What is Transnational Cinema?”, in: Transnational Cinema: The Film Reader, ed. Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden (New York: Routledge, 2006); Kathleen McHugh, „The World and the Soup: Historicizing Media Feminisms in Transnational Contexts”, Camera Obscura 24: 3 (2009), pp. 111-151; Will Higbee, Song Hwee Lim, „Concepts of Transnational Cinema: Towards a Critical Transnationalism in Film Studies”, Transnational Cinemas 1:1 (2010), pp. 7-21.

[7] Diane Negra, Off-White Hollywood. American Culture and Ethnic Female Stardom, (London-New York: Routledge) (2001), pp. 55-83; Dale Hudson, “Just Play Yourself, «Maggie Cheung»: Irma Vep, Rethinking Transnational Stardom and Unthinking National Cinemas”, Screen 47:2 (2006), pp. 213-232.

[8] Iwona Kurz, Twarze w tłumie…, pp. 119-126.

[9] Małgorzata Fidelis, “Czy jesteś nowoczesną dziewczyną? Młode Polki a kultura konsumpcyjna w latach 60.” / “Are You a Modern Girl? Consumer Culture and Young Women in 1960s Poland”, trans. Anna Rogulska, Teksty Drugie 2 (2015), p. 306, 321.

[10] According to Iwona Kurz, the term “girl” was commonly used in everyday speech in the 50s. This word drove out the more popular terms as “miss” or “friend” (Iwona Kurz, Twarze w tłumie…, p. 125).

[11] Ibidem, p. 119.

[12] Małgorzata Fidelis, pp. 303-306.

[13] Richard Dyer wrote about the Hollywood “star system” that the star images recalling the social meanings and values reveal, solve, integrate or disguise the ideological contradictions present in a given society and culture (Richard Dyer, Stars, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) (1998), pp. 20-32).

[14] Oksana Bulgakova, p. 47.

[15] Ibidem, p. 56.

[16] Iwona Kurz, Twarze w tłumie …, p. 139, 142.

[17] Allegedly Elżbieta Czyżewska was ashamed to have appeared in this film (Iza Komendołowicz, p. 143).

[18] Miriam Bratu Hansen, “The mass production of the senses: classical cinema as vernacular modernism”, in: Reinventing Film Studies, ed. Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams (London: Arnold, 2000), p. 344.

[19] Małgorzata Fidelis, p. 321.

[20] Iza Komendołowicz, p. 30.

[21] Filip Gańczak, Filmowcy w matni bezpieki / The filmmakers in the snare of the Security Service, (Warszawa: Prószyński i S-ka) (2011), p. 75.

[22] Ibidem, p. 88.

[23] Aleksandra Szarłat, Celebryci z tamtych lat. Prywatne życie wielkich gwiazd PRL-u / Celebrities of the past. Private lives of great stars in PPR, (Kraków: Znak) (2014), p. 272.

[24] Włodzimierz Stępiński, “Do reżysera Andrzeja Wajdy list otwarty” / “An open letter to the director Andrzej Wajda”, Kwartalnik Filmowy 6 (1994), p. 225 (Walka Młodych 14.04.1968, p. 1, 10).

[25] According to Sara Ahmed “it is not that an object we might encounter is inherently disgusting; rather, an object becomes disgusting through its contact with other objects that have already, as it were, been designated as disgusting before the encounter has taken place” (Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) (2004), p. 87).

[26] Ibidem, p. 93.

[27] “We do things with language, produce effects with language, (…). Language is (…) both «what» we do (…), the act and its consequences” (Judith Butler, Excitable Speech. A Politics of the Performative, (New York-London: Routledge) (1997), p. 8).

[28] Andrzej Wajda, Autobiografia. Kino i reszta świata / Autobiography. Cinema and the rest of the world, (Kraków: Znak) (2013), p. 119.

[29] Iwona Kurz, “Między chrztem a samospaleniem. «Teatra polskie» drugiej połowy lat sześćdziesiątych” /  “Between baptism and self-immolation. «Polish theatres» of the second half of the sixties”, Didaskalia 126 (2015), p. 4.

[30] Iza Komendołowicz, pp. 222-223.

[31] Filip Gańczak, p. 63.

[32] Ibidem, s. 71.

[33] “Jakimi nie chcemy być” / “What we do not want to be”, Walka Młodych 28.01.1968, p. 8. Quoted after: Małgorzata Fidelis, p. 318.

[34] Małgorzata Fidelis, p. 318.

[35] Ibidem.

[36] Oksana Bulgakova, p. 56.

[37] Jean Baudrillard, Seduction, trans. Brian Singer, (Montréal: New World Perspectives) (1990), p. 124.

[38] Iza Komendołowicz, p. 235.

[39] Meryl Streep who – as a student – performed with her in Demons directed by Andrzej Wajda sees a completely different shade of Czyżewska’s excesses: “this creature [Czyżewska] seemed to me the most fascinating woman I have ever met. She had this European style that I have not known since I grew up in New Jersey. This was femininity aware of itself, truly seductive (…), a style unknown to women in the 70s.” (soundtrack from the film Actress).

[40] Monika Talarczyk-Gubała, Wszystko o Ewie. Filmy Barbary Sass a kino kobiet w drugiej połowie XX wieku / All about Eve. Barbara Sass’s films and women’s cinema in the 2nd half of the XX century, (Szczecin: Wydawnictwo Naukowe Uniwersytetu Szczecińskiego) (2013), pp. 193-198.

[41] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Adam Frank, „Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Silvan Tomkins”, in: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling. Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, (Durham-London: Duke University Press) (2003), p. 116.

[42] Sara Ahmed, p. 94.

[43] Iza Komendołowicz, p. 198.

[44] Ellen Hopkins, “The Real Anna: The Truth Behind the Hit Film”, New York Magazine 4.01.1988, pp. 24-29.

[45] According to Agnieszka Holland, Czyżewska herself was the reason why “this film could not have been done with her.” She behaved like Anna, she was self-destructive, aggressive, plunging into an alcohol delirium, as if aware that “the film was stealing her life” (Iza Komendołowicz, p. 269).

[46] Joanna Pacuła already in 1983, i.e. only one year after coming to New York played the lead role – thanks to Roman Polański’s recommendation – in Gorky Park (1983, Michael Apted) for which she was nominated for the Golden Globe. Those who witnessed the meeting between these two actresses claim that “Elżbieta was jealous, mainly because Pacuła was young, very energetic and quickly successful” (Ibidem, p. 198).

[47] Thomas Elsaesser, Malte Hagener, Film Theory. An Introduction through the senses, (New York-London: Routledge) (2010), p. 68.

[48] Paul Coates wrote about the relation between the close-up and suffering: “[…] the close-up, whose most common form picks out the face, isolates as suffering does” (Paul Coates, Screening the Face, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan) (2012), p. 46).

[49] Krzysztof Demidowicz, “Elżbieta Czyżewska: kochana niekochana” / “Elżbieta Czyżewska: loved unloved”, Film 6 (2001), p. 93.

[50] P. Coates, p. 52.

[51] Richard Dyer, Heavenly Bodies. Film Stars and Society, (London-New York: Routledge) (2004), p. 163.

[52] Statement of Kinga Dębska comes from the materials promoting the documentary she co-directed: “Actress”. The premiere of the film “Actress” (documentary about Elżbieta Czyżewska), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uLPPAMFyBNM,dateaccessed 21 March 2016.

[53] Bruce Weber, “Elzbieta Czyzewska, Polish Actress Unwelcome in Her Own Country, Diesat 72”, The New York Times 10.06.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/18/arts/18czyz.html?_r=0,dateaccessed: 21 March 2016.

[i] The paper was delivered during the international conference Polish cinema as a transnational cinema organised by the Department of the History of Polish Cinema at the Institute of Audiovisual Arts of Jagiellonian University (Kraków, 26-28 November 2015). The article in its extended version will be published in the volume edited by Magdalena Podsiadło and Sebastian Jagielski (Universitas 2017).

Sebastian Jagielski is an assistant professor of Film Studies at the Institute of Audiovisual Arts at Jagiellonian University. He is the author of Maskarady męskości. Pragnienie homospołeczne w polskim kinie fabularnym/Masquerades of Masculinity. Homosocial Desire in Polish Cinema (Kraków, 2013), and co-editor of the volume Ciało i seksualność w kinie polskim/Body and Sexuality in Polish Cinema (Kraków, 2009). His papers have been published e.g. in Studies in European Cinema, Studies in Eastern European Cinema, and Kwartalnik Filmowy. His research focuses on Polish cinema, queer cultures, queer theory, affect film theory, and star studies.


Reading ABC. An experiment

Andrzej Pitrus

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 23-33.

Andrzej Pitrus

Jagiellonian University


Reading ABC. An experiment



The article discusses an experiment with the participation of a group of foreign students, who visited Cracow in 2015. It is not a research study in a proper sense, although it was based on methods used in questionnaire and focus group research.   The purpose of the experiment was simple: to determine how young people with little or no knowledge about Polish history and culture are able to undestand a film focused on „being Polish”. A short documentary by Wojciech Wiszniwski was shown to two groups of students: the ones who had just arrived in Cracow, and the ones who had participated in several courses on Polish culture.

Key words: documentary, cultural competence, Polish cinema, Wojciech Wiszniewski

Study or experiment?

The inspiration for this short paper came from my teaching experience as a professor of film and media studies. For almost twenty years I have been working with foreign students, most of them from Europe (Erasmus and Erasmus Plus exchange students), but also from the United States, Canada, the Far East, and Australia. My first English-language experiences were occasional lectures and seminars on Polish cinema; a few years later I started my own regular course called “Contemporary Polish Film” (split into two parts, 45 teaching hours each). The course discussed Polish cinema after 1989, with an introduction to the most important post-war movements. Last year, another course was introduced: “Masters of Polish Cinema”.

The article is by no means a research study in a proper sense, although it is based on methods (mentioned later in references) used in questionnaire and focus group research. Instead, I present and discuss the outcome of an interesting experiment conducted with the participation of my foreign students. This experiment could encourage further research; however, in this form it only helps to formulate questions and possible research directions. The purpose of my experiment was simple. Working with foreign students in a natural way makes an academic teacher question the possible influence of their teachings. Does the cultural competence of foreigners substantially change in just a few months? Simple observation obviously suggests answers. Informal conversation with student also helps, but I wanted a more systematic approach in order to see what the outcome of my efforts really is.

Surprisingly, my experiment, which was designed as a kind of “test” for a possible long-term study, concluded with unexpected observations of a more general nature.

Participants of the experiment

I am fully aware that the group of people who took part in my experiment is not representative on a large scale[1]. Yet, I was only interested in examining a particular group of people representing foreign students willing to actively learn about Polish culture and participate in it for a period of time. To observe the change, I decided to choose a “micro-readings approach” and so-called time-series design with single intervention in multiple groups (in this case, two)[2] .

The majority of participants have no previous experience in film studies. Most of them study humanities or social sciences, with some rare exceptions. In recent years, only a maximum of 15% of students declared any kind of Polish background, and even less were able to speak Polish (B1 level or above). Occasionally, some Polish students interested in cinema (but not enrolled in film studies) join the group. The study was carried out with two groups of students. One of them consisted of 20 people who spent a semester in Poland and participated in several courses on Polish culture, including ‘Polish Contemporary Film’ (June 2015). The other was comprised of 23 students who had just arrived in Poland and signed up for a ‘Masters of Polish Cinema’ course (October 2015). Two different groups were chosen to comply with the research strategy mentioned above.

Background and previous experiences

The aim of the aforementioned courses is to introduce participants to Polish film in the broader context of national culture. During the classes, several movies are shown; all with an introduction and some with live commentaries. Moderated discussion always follows the screenings. We focus on topics, characters, political and social context, and only occasionally comment on style, film form, and genre. Students from different cultural backgrounds offer their opinions and interpretations of Polish movies. Some of them are truly original and exciting, as they are based on fresh and unencumbered approaches. For example, most of the political metaphors are not easy to apprehend, as students know very little or nothing about the recent history of Poland. Yet, most of the students do try to understand the movies they watch. Instead of trying to discover the intended meaning, they look for more universal aspects of the stories.

Juliusz Machulski’a Sexmission (Seksmisja, 1984) is a very good example of this creative ‘misunderstanding’. When the movie premiered in Poland, it was considered a metaphor for a totalitarian society, and as such was drastically censored. A state without men, in fact ruled by a disguised male dictator, stood for eighties’ Poland. For today’s foreign students, Machulski’s comedy has a different meaning. Most of the students agree that it is an antifeminist satire, and some of them see the movie as a critique of political correctness.

Subject of the experiment. Criteria for selection

The experiment had to be conducted in class (2 hours and 15 minutes). Thus, a short film had to be chosen for discussion and analysis. Its focus on a Polish-oriented subject was essential. I also opted for a film that communicates with images rather than words. Although alternatives certainly exist, after few discussions with my academic colleagues I decided to choose a film in which Polish identity is thoroughly discussed. The film is also very “dense”: with only 9 minutes of running time it encapsulates many references to Polish history, culture, and language (although there is almost no spoken dialogue, and very little off-screen commentary, which makes it even more challenging).

Both groups watched the same film: a short experimental documentary, ABC (Elementarz, 1976) by Wojciech Wiszniewski. The film is recognized[3] as one of the most outstanding achievements of Polish documentary and a major influence on a generation of younger filmmakers[4]. More information on Wiszniewski and his short can be found in the booklet with commentaries written by Mirosław Przylipiak[5] that accompanies the DVD edition of the work.


Students received questionnaires (more detailed description follows), and afterwards participated in a focus group. For this part of the experiment, a so-called “creative approach”[6] was applied. During the discussion and while working with questionnaires, the participants are fully aware of the purpose of the experiment. This approach is based on a “brainstorming” effect, in which a group of people who are all interested in the subjects of the study tries to “solve” the problem together. The discussion in the focus group was obviously moderated.

The film was shown three times. After the first screening students received questionnaires, and all questions were explained. Then they watched the film again and answered questions from section A of the questionnaire. Section B referred to the third screening, during which the film was freeze-framed nine times, and students were asked to comment on what they saw on the screen.

Shown below is section A of the questionnaire with some comments in italics (not included in the original questionnaire) which refer to my instructions or tips given to the students during the experiment.

Your nationality:

Do you have any Polish ancestry (parents, grandparents)?

Do you speak Polish (at least B level)?

Describe briefly the main topic of Wojciech Wiszniewski’s „ABCs”

(no more than two sentences)

Students were asked to go beyond the story, and identify “deeper” and more general meanings of ‘ABC’.

Who are the people depicted in the portraits on the walls (beginning of the documentary)?

There are pictures of Polish kings hanging on a wall in a dark corridor.

How would you describe the people in the first part of the documentary (letters A – D)?

Who are they?

First letters of the alphabet are spoken by four different individuals in four different rooms.

What is the first sentence that Polish children learn?

The sentence “Ala ma kota” (Alice has a cat) can be seen briefly in a book.

What is the first sentence children learn in your country? Write it in your own language and translate it into English.

Katechizm polskiego dziecka by Władysław Bełza  (1900)

— Kto ty jesteś?              (Who are you?)
— Polak mały                  (A little Pole)
— Jaki znak twój?            (What is your emblem?)
— Orzeł biały                  (The white eagle)
— Gdzie ty mieszkasz?   (Where do you live?)
— Między swemi            (Among my people)
— W jakim kraju?            (In what land?)
— W polskiej ziemi.         (The Polish land)
Czem ta ziemia?       (What is this country?)
— Mą ojczyzną.             (My homeland)
— Czem zdobyta?                  (How did they fight for it?)
— Krwią i blizną.          (With their blood and scars)

— Czy ją kochasz?           (Do you love it?)
— Kocham szczerze.       (I love it dearly)
— A w co wierzysz?        (What do you believe in?)

— W Polskę wierzę!      (I believe in Poland)
— Coś ty dla niej?        
(Who are you for your country?)
— Wdzięczne dziecię    (A grateful child)
— Coś jej winien?         (What would you do for it?)
— Oddać życie.             (I would give my life)

Some parts of the poem (in bold above) were omitted in the documentary.

Could you explain why?

Fragments of the famous poem were used in “ABC”. They are recited line by line by a group of children.

Name characters and situations that you identify as typically Polish.

Section B refers to nine tableaux (titles come from the author, tableaux briefly explained in italics)


A picture by Artur Grottger from the series “Polonia” can be seen briefly. A scene from 1863 January Uprising is depicted.

Group of men

Group of Polish soldiers in uniforms in an informal situation.

Group of men, women, and children

Large, multi-generational family.

Two men in a room

A Christmas priest’s visit.

Women in a passageway

Countryside women selling food in a city.

Four men

Coal merchants.


Newlyweds. This tableau resembles traditional posed marriage photographs.

Three young people in white shirts

Members of the Youth Organisation in white shirts and red ties. A white eagle without a crown can be seen on the wall.

Two boys in the countryside

Two adolescent boys in a typically Polish countryside landscape with willow trees.

The outcome

After the questions had been answered, the students participated in a moderated discussion. Some of the problematic questions were explained, others were clarified by a lecturer. Students willingly participated in conversation.

Although there were a few persons with Polish background in the October group, only two were able to speak Polish. All students identified Wiszniewski’s documentary as strange, hermetic, and difficult. Almost all tried to indicate the main topic of ABC; only a few left this question with no answer. Ten people claimed that the documentary refers to the Polish system of education, with some noticing that the director criticises stereotypes. Eleven participants of the experiment discovered a more general meaning, saying that the main topic of the film was “Polish identity” or the “Polish way of life”.

Only one person (a student from Poland) was able to recognise the pictures in the opening sequence. Others answered, “I do not know” or tried to guess (key figures from Polish history, Józef Piłsudski[7], etc.). All foreigners had problems with questions requiring actual cultural competence; for example, nobody was able to indicate the famous ‘Ala ma kota’ phrase as one of the first sentences learned by children in Poland. On the other hand, most of the participants described characters from the first part of the film (persons declaiming letters A-D) as typically Polish. In an open question about typical Polish elements present in ABC, most of the students gave no relevant answer. Some of them referred to stereotypes that in most cases were not related to the film, while obvious elements (Polish symbols, colours, references to Polish history) were generally left unnoticed, with the exception of students with a Polish background and/or the ability to speak Polish. Most of the students tried to answer the question about Bełza’s poem. While some gave no relevant answer, others referred to the nationalistic tone of the omitted fragments.

Members of the October 2015 group had serious problems with section B of the questionnaire. Only four people (including a Polish student) tried to give answers that are more detailed, while others described characters in the tableau in a very casual way. In both cases, very rarely was the true context of the scene identified.

Wiszniewski’s ABC is an example of experimental documentary. Its meaning is inherently open and somehow blurred, even for those with proper cultural competence. Yet in discussion, students did not complain about its complex form. They enjoyed its episodic and associative structure, but in most cases were not able to identify the basic components that are usually quite self-evident for Polish audiences. I was not surprised with the answers, as many participants of the class had no previous contact with Polish culture. Some of them decided to come to Krakow because of a pre-existing interest in Polish issues; however, the majority had different reasons such as curiosity or low accommodation costs, while some considered Krakow an attractive hub to visit Central Europe.

The structure of the June 2015 group was similar: it contained one Polish student, three with Polish ancestry (but limited language skills), and one who spoke Polish fluently but had no Polish family whatsoever. Obviously, it was very interesting to see if just one semester in Poland was enough to overcome the barriers of cultural competence. The expectations were high and somewhat justified as students were active participants in academic life. Most of them had learned the basics of Polish and had contact with students from Jagiellonian University. They obviously attended other courses related to Polish history, politics, contemporary issues, culture, and participated in excursions and other educational events. After the course, all students had basic knowledge about post-war cinema in Poland. They also researched the subject individually to prepare a final project: an essay on a Polish film of their choice.

The outcome of the experiment with the June 2015 group was quite surprising. Again, students identified the overall meaning of the documentary as related either to the system of education, or ‘Polish identity’. Yet, this time only four persons claimed that the meaning is more general, while 15 tried to discuss the subject of education and its manipulative influence on the younger generation. Additionally, two of the persons who saw ABC as a metaphor of national identity gave very casual answers consisting of isolated words or very short phrases rather than sentences or entire paragraphs. In one case, the reason was poor command of English. In another, an unexplained lack of involvement from an English native speaker who usually gave only single words answers or very short sentences.

The interpretations provided by other students were in many cases quite complex, while answers to other questions were not significantly ‘better’ than the ones given by the members of the October 2015 group. Some of the students were able to identify more images properly, but their general competence was no different.

Where then do the differences in the general understanding of the film come from? It seems that they were biased by what students had learned during their stay in Poland. Many movies discussed in class were made before 1989, others often related to the communist regime. Obviously, they were often discussed in a political context. Students also learned that many institutions, which they considered as politically neutral, were in fact tools of oppression in communist Poland. This new knowledge was ‘used’ to interpret the film, which otherwise seemed hermetic. The process is called ‘confirmation bias’:

Creating and testing hypotheses represents a crucial feature not only of progress in science, but also in our daily lives in which we set up assumptions about reality and try to test them. However, the lay scientist stands accused of processing his or her hypotheses in such a way that he or she is biased to confirm them. “Confirmation bias” means that information is searched for, interpreted, and remembered in such a way that it systematically impedes the possibility that the hypothesis could be rejected—that is, it fosters the immunity of the hypothesis. Here, the issue is not the use of deceptive strategies to fake data, but forms of information processing that take place more or less unintentionally[8].

My discussions with Polish students show that for Poles, Wojciech Wiszniewski’s ABC does not really deal with education. Although I had no chance to conduct a similar experiment (no questionnaires were used, only moderated conversation), none of the Polish viewers saw the documentary as a metaphor of education, and especially manipulation. They all tended to interpret the film as an experimental essay about Polish icons, symbols, and stereotypes.

Falski’s “Elementarz” as a matrix of understanding

A famous learning aid by Marian Falski (Elementarz) that inspired the filmmaker was originally published in 1910 and is still available and sometimes used in education. Although it may be criticised for its conservative approach to family, social roles, etc., its author was able to introduce innovative[9] and highly effective methods of education. Falski did not focus on the structure of the language, but instead tried to employ natural cognitive preferences of children. He used images and simple words to teach them how to read and write. He also replaced printed letters with handwriting. Many of his innovations were revolutionary, at not only the beginning of the 20th century, but also many years later.

In a way, Wiszniewski employs Marian Falski’s ideas. He intended his documentary to be ‘read’ in an analytical manner, just like the words and simple sentences in ‘Elementarz’. The director also seems to go beyond words: the only linguistic components of the film are the letters of the alphabet and Bełza’s poem. Instead, he proposes a complex kaleidoscope of images: a visual aid supposed to teach us to ‘read’ Poland.

Foreign students who were still not able to identify all components tried to comprehend the text as such with their limited and fragmented knowledge of Poland and its institutions. The result was an ‘improper’ reading of the film, probably dissonant with the intention of the filmmaker. Although the ability to identify typically Polish characters, situations, and symbols was similar, there was one other important difference between both groups: members of the June 2015 group answered the questions in section B of the questionnaire in more complex and elaborate ways. The reason seems simple: for most of them (students who were not English native speakers), studying in Krakow was their first chance to use English in academic discussions. Not only did their linguistic skills improve, but they also became more confident and self-assured. I assume they also had more willingness to understand a text that seemed so demanding not only because they wanted to really apprehend the text itself, but to legitimise themselves as individuals participating in Polish culture. Their biased understanding of the text resulted from the limited ‘tools’ they could use in the process of interpretation:

 A true confirmation bias seems to occur primarily when the hypotheses tested are already established, or are motivationally supported. In general, we may say that the confirmation bias consists in favouring expectancy congruent information over incongruent information. This may happen in different ways: (a) memories congruent with the hypothesis are more likely to be accessed than memories that are incongruent with it; (b) undue weight is given to the importance of congruent information, possibly because of the concentration on the hypothesis, and the neglect of alternative explanations; (c) those sources with information that could reject the hypothesis are avoided, provided that the person knows a priori the opinion of the source.[10]


Let us try to ask some questions. Did the students really learn anything about Poland? Were their opinions and judgements about our country manipulated or falsified? Is it truly possible to understand the Other (in this case Poland and Poles)? Although the cultural competence of the June group was almost no different than that of the October group, I profoundly believe that those few months the young people from all over the world spent in Krakow make deep sense. My simple experiment proves the obvious: it is not possible to fully understand the Other after just a few months. Nevertheless, it also suggests that meeting the Other is equally valuable:

there is a zone of mutuality pre-predicatively given to ‘us’: we confront each other in a situation which then permits the exchange of ideas. My fellow man is encountered as ‘within hailing range’ or within ‘speaking distance’, as available for an intimate chat, as open to a face-to-face encounter. In all of these possibilities, the Other is taken as ‘confront-able’, as ‘hail-able’, as essentially capable of approaching me in closer and closer relationships. He is already in the world moving toward me. Horizons of proximity and distance undergird the possibility of our meeting. The Other who is friendly toward me is said to be easily ‘approachable’; the Other who is rather cold, difficult to relate to, is spoken of as being ‘distant’. The communicative zone involves avenues of withdrawal outward as well as engagement inward. To communicate is to be already involved in a world whose situations are built out of such eidetic possibilities[11].

When I presented my paper based on the experiment discussed in this article at a conference, I suddenly realised that it was more of a political statement than a proper academic address. I have recently returned from Neukölln, a borough of Berlin where people of 147 nations live. Were they Others, or was I the Other? I left for Berlin in early October 2015, and returned in late November 2015. Poland had changed dramatically[12].

I revised this article in Berlin again (November 2016). Berlin had also changed: struggling with a shift in public opinion, the refugee crisis, and more (than ever) support for radical political forces.

Will Poles and Europeans still be able to meet the Other, ‘misunderstand’ them, ‘misinterpret’ them in a world with no eidetic possibilities?


Biocca, Frank, Prabu David and Mark West, „Continuous Response Measurements (CRM). A Computerized Tool for Research on the Cognitive Processing of Communication Messages” , in Measuring Psychological Responses to Media Messages, ed. Annie Lang (New York and London: Routledge, 2014) pp. 15-64.

Glass, Gene V , Willson, Victor L., Gottman, John Mordechai, Design and Analysis of Time-series Experiments, (Charlotte: Information Age Publishing ) (2008).

Kuc, Kamila, Michael O’Prey, The Struggle for Form: Perspectives on Polish Avant-Garde Film 1916-1989, (New York: Columbia University Press) (2014).

Merton, Robert K. , Fiske, Marjorie, Kendall, Patricia L., The Focused Interview. A Manual of Problems and Procedures. (Glencoe: The Free Press) (1956).

Oswald, Margit E. , Stefan Grosjean, „Confirmation Bias”, in Cognitive Illusions. A Handbook on Fallacies and Biases inThinking, Judgement and Memory, ed. Rudiger F. Pohl, (Hove and New York: Psychology Press,  2004).

Strauss, Erwin W. Straus, Maurice Natanson, Henri Ey, Psychology and Philosophy, (New York: Springer Verlag) (1969).

Tes, Urszula, „Declaration of Immortality – Inspirations Derived from Creative Documentaries by Wojciech Wiszniewski”,  Images , vol. XV/no. 24 (2014), pp. 145-154.

Wroczyński, Ryszard, Marian Falski i reformy szkolne w Rzeczypospolitej, (Warszawa: PWN) (1988).


[1]The problem is discussed among others by: Frank Biocca, Prabu David and Mark West, Continuous Response Measurements (CRM). A Computerized Tool for Research on the Cognitive Processing of Communication Messages [in:] Annie Lang (ed.) Measuring Psychological Responses to Media Messages, New York and London: Routledge 2014, pp. 15-64.

[2] See: Glass, Gene V. Willson, Victor L., Gottman, John Mordechai, Design and Analysis of Time-series Experiments, Charlotte: Information Age Publishing 2008.

[3] See for example: Kamila Kuc, Michael O’Prey, The Struggle for Form: Perspectives on Polish Avant-Garde Film 1916-1989, Columbia University Press 2014, p. 78.

[4] See for example: Urszula Tes, Declaration of Immortality – Inspirations Derived from Creative Documentaries by Wojciech Wiszniewski, “Images” 2014, vol. XV/no. 24 Poznań 2014, pp. 145-154.

[5] Wojciech Wiszniewski in a series Polska Szkoła Dokumentu, Warszawa: Polskie Wydawnictwo Audiowizualne, 2007.

[6] Merton, Robert K. , Fiske, Marjorie, Kendall, Patricia L., The Focused Interview. A Manual of Problems and Procedures. The Free Press, Glencoe, Illinois 1956.

[7] Józef Piłsudski (05.12.1867 – 12.05.1935) was a Polish politician; first Marshal of Poland (since 1920), and actual leader (1926–35) of the Second Polish Republic.

[8] Margit E. Oswald, Stefan Grosjean, Confirmation Bias, [in:] Rudiger F. Pohl (ed.), Cognitive Illusions. A Handbook on Fallacies and Biases in Thinking, Judgement and Memory, Hove and New York: Psychology Press 2004, p. 79.

[9] See. for example: Ryszard Wroczyński, Marian Falski i reformy szkolne w Rzeczypospolitej, Warszawa: PWN 1988.

[10] Oswald and Grosjan, op.cit., p. 93.

[11] Erwin W. Straus, Maurice Natanson, Henri Ey, Psychology and Philosophy, New York: Springer Verlag 1969, p. 101.

[12] In October 2015, right wing populist party called “Prawo i Sprawiedliwość” won the elections. Since then the liberal course of Polish economy and politics has been systematically negated.


Andrzej Pitrus once used to be a Patagonian cougar. Yet, now he is a media and film professor hoping to restore his true identity. He teaches at Jagiellonian University. His articles and books focus on experimental cinema, media art, and video games. In 2015, his book on Bill Viola was published. Currently Andrzej Pitrus researches German contexts of Nam June Paik’s art. He does not smoke, plays bass guitar and drinks a little too much Primitivo.


Rinko Kikuchi in Space: Transnational Mexican Directors’ Global Gaze

Jane Hanley

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 34-50.

Jane Hanley

Macquarie University


Rinko Kikuchi in Space: Transnational Mexican Directors’ Global Gaze



Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro are contemporaries and compatriots who have charted different paths in their careers as makers of major international releases. Between Babel’s realist network narrative and the science fiction spectacle of Pacific Rim, the actor Rinko Kikuchi offers one connecting thread which can provide us insight into different transnational visions of the global. Pacific Rim establishes the typical global stakes now a cliché in expensive blockbusters, which increasingly depend on international markets for profitability and cannot incorporate too much locally specific experience incomprehensible to non-U.S. audiences, however del Toro’s particular vision suggests a more complex reading of subjectivity in transnational space than the humanity vs. aliens plot may initially suggest. In this context, the figure of Kikuchi’s Mako Mori is arguably the central character in terms of the narrative despite the film apparently being framed around Charlie Hunnam’s Raleigh Becket. On the other hand, Kikuchi’s performance as Chieko Wataya in González Iñárritu’s Babel is at the centre of one story in the geographically dispersed but intersecting meditation on the relationship between the locally specific and global systems, with the Tokyo setting emphasising the alienation experienced by the character. Ultimately, Babel reproduces a sense of isolation whereas del Toro’s global aesthetic and speculative world-building underpin transgressive intersubjective, intercultural, human-machine and human-monster communions.

Key words: del Toro; Iñárritu; borders; alienation; liminality; science fiction film.


Introduction: Transnational Themes in Transnational Productions


Films which encompass transnational issues and endeavour to engage global audiences must necessarily situate themselves differently from films which cleave closely to a specific culture or subculture, co-located with the film’s projected audience. One aspect of this is the approach transnational films take to their central characters. How can their relationship to their environment be understood by different audiences, and how does this spectrum of legibility mesh with the thematic preoccupations of the film? Films provide one medium for exploring the way globalised experiences and connections produce contemporary subjectivities. This idea frames the interpretation of the characters played by Japanese actor Rinko Kikuchi in two quite different but related transnational films: Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (2006) and Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013). Del Toro and 2015 Academy Award winner Iñárritu are two of the so-called Three Amigos, along with 2014 Academy Award winner Alfonso Cuarón.[1] (The awards are worth mentioning for the way popular reception and generic conventions frame characters for the audience.) The three directors are at the centre of a recent perceived boom in Latin American cinema, a construct related to select Spanish-language works finding an international audience. All three have also made successful well-financed English-language films, though quite distinct in terms of material and reception.

While the directors are important in each other’s careers and share the same cultural moment, speaking of their work as Mexican is to apply an artificial categorisation related to an outdated concept of nationally-based film production. Their cinematic works are quite distinctive, as Peter Hutchings has pointed out.[2] Their shared context is of interest however for the ways in which their professional trajectories are informed by both their origin and aesthetics, and how these inflect their portrayal of the global. All three have been acclaimed, but Cuarón and Iñárritu have been lauded for a higher degree of perceived seriousness. In comparison, Del Toro’s most lauded cinematic achievements are positioned in opposition to his supposedly more commercial works that explicitly belong to the genres of horror and science fiction, especially when these works are in English. Hutchings remarks on this fetishizing of non-English language films, noting that in del Toro’s Spanish Civil War films the specificity of Spanish history and memory anchors the content in a national cinema, making palatable categorisation easier.[3] Of course, this Spanishness is complicated, since both The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth engage more with displacement than with belonging.[4] The former in particular is informed by Mexico’s own reception of Spanish Civil War exiles, and was originally conceived as a Mexican Revolution narrative. Neither film tells a story bounded by a particular national moment; both break barriers between the real and unreal and between memory and imagination.[5] Audiences—especially international audiences with less awareness of the particular transnational features of both the Spanish Civil War itself and the ways it is represented in these films—can more easily fit the films into the Spanish national mould. In contrast, del Toro’s English-language films with their more recognisable genre elements supposedly ‘lack significant ex-generic referents to endow them with “cultural heft”‘.[6] Geek culture may rule the twenty-first century box office, but it convinces critics and juries only rarely. Yet both films fit into del Toro’s career trajectory in its fundamental unpredictability of genre and aesthetic. Del Toro is ‘the imperfect mimic, the perpetual outsider who imitates more or less successfully but who is also an awkward, troubling presence who moves back and forth across national borders and cultural distinctions without becoming assimilated’.[7] Davies similarly identifies all del Toro’s films as ‘gleefully impure’.[8] A breadth of influences mingle together, horror merges with art, refusing genre classification. Pacific Rim’s action science fiction grew out of cult monster movies, but the narrative structure, according to del Toro himself, is essentially of a sports film.[9]

Babel and Pacific Rim

Both Babel and Pacific Rim have a transnational crew and cast, notably in their significant focus on characters played by Japanese actor Rinko Kikuchi. This is not coincidental, since Kikuchi asked Iñárritu to put her in contact with del Toro to arrange an audition after hearing that del Toro was seeking a Japanese actor for a project.[10] Nor is she the only cast or crewmember the two films have in common, reflecting the ongoing cross-fertilisation in production conditions between the three Mexican contemporaries, drawing on their long acquaintance. In addition to these transnational material conditions, various features of the stories reflect an encompassing transnational vision of a sometimes confused sort. Many performances in both films require degrees of cross-cultural roleplaying, with Babel aiming for but sometimes missing greater verisimilitude, speaking to the challenges and potential compromises involved in putting together a work of this nature. Kikuchi contends with the least of this compared to other major cast members, as she is not performing a national origin different to her own in either film. Nevertheless, her characters in both films do still suppose forms of doubling in their positioning for a global audience both in terms of aesthetic and the pairing of language and culture.

In Babel Kikuchi plays Chieko Wataya, an adolescent girl with deafness. Her performance therefore is sub-national but still cross-cultural in her portrayal of a teenager in the Japanese deaf community. Chieko is the main character in one of the four interlocking stories of the network narrative. The film switches between Morocco, Japan, the U.S. and Mexico via the plot device of the accidental shooting of a U.S. tourist (played by Australian Cate Blanchett).  Chieko’s story is the most narratively disconnected from the other three, which all pivot around the family of the U.S. couple at the core of the film whose story is the only one that reaches traditional resolution. The Japan sequences are designed to serve the film’s central themes of miscommunication and the capacity or incapacity to overcome differences via empathy. These resonances, as encoded via Chieko’s grief after her mother’s death, her general feeling of alienation, and her use of minority language (Japanese Sign Language), are only connected to the rest of the plot itself through the contrivance of her father having left in Morocco the gun involved in the shooting.

Pacific Rim is a typically explosive CGI-heavy action/sci-fi blockbuster featuring pilots of giant robot-suits (jaegers) defending Earth from invading monsters (kaiju). It was explicitly conceived and designed in tribute to mecha (the robot-suits) and tokusatsu/kaiju or monster-based Japanese cultural products. The film’s aesthetic deliberately references the effect created by such films’ live action performances in monster suits, despite relying heavily on current technology to generate the action.[11] This aesthetic and narrative DNA is obviously significant for the film’s engagement with Japanese culture and the portrayal of Rinko Kikuchi’s character Mako Mori, the only Japanese character with a substantial presence in the film. Mako is a pilot candidate for the jaegers, raised by military marshal Stacker Pentecost after losing her parents in a kaiju attack on Tokyo. The trauma occasioned by this event is the principle obstacle to Mako realizing her heroic role as a pilot via the ‘drift’, the film’s conceit of two or more pilots uniting telepathically via their memories in order to jointly control their jaegers. Both the presence of a significant female protagonist in an action-focused narrative and the exploration of linking or fusing with other people and with technology are common features in certain genres of manga and anime.[12]

Along with creating robot and monster designs that principally refer to existing popular texts, the places in which the narrative unfolds are similarly imaginary and play more on science fiction cityscapes than real contemporary cities. The shatterdome from which the Jaeger launch, the cinematic future city version of Hong Kong, and the Tokyo of Mako’s memories (informed by the Tokyo of the director’s memories of past kaiju-film urban destruction) are intertextual inventions. Future cinematic Hong Kong, in particular, where most of the action unfolds, is a purely imaginary space, the defining referents being other urban images from popular culture, even though in some instances they might imposed over real-life Hong Kong terrain. Humans do not traverse Pacific Rim Hong Kong and shape it with their bodies; it has been designed to be broken through and brought down by the destructive enormity of the kaiju. The fragments of the city respond to the future-imaginary of need and desire for both creators and audience. While Pacific Rim’s specific referents are from Japanese cultural products that achieved cult status outside Japan, the orientalising of the future has been normalised in Hollywood cinema since Blade Runner[13], and in some sense is what audiences expect from portrayals of the future. To better understand Chieko Wataya’s interaction with and situatedness within the much more realist aesthetic of the Toyko of Babel, it helps to frame this city, in contrast to Pacific Rim’s Hong Kong, as a Foucauldian heterotopia.[14] In the particular consideration of transnational cinema with varied audiences, it is useful to follow Raussert’s lead in extending Foucault’s concept via Massey’s exploration of place-as-process wherein places are discursively rather than geographically bound, existing ‘within consciousness rather than physical borders’.[15] This facilitates the application of the heterotopia not just to the theatre and the interaction of screen, experience, fictional space and real space, but also to the multiplicity of ways the spaces portrayed in film are experienced by both the characters and the audience.

Babel-Tokyo mirrors Tokyo-as-lived (with the mirror being one of Foucault’s examples, alongside the theatrical stage, both with obvious resonances for film). The cinematic reproduction of Tokyo, however, takes it out of specific time and place, and creates an unstable and constantly mutating function underscoring both the radical absence of Tokyo and the absence of the viewer themselves as they are transported into each other. Babel’s Tokyo has both intertextual referents and real referents, and a shifting significance both diegetically, for the inhabitants portrayed, and non-diegetically, for the film’s diverse viewers.

Asia as Global Space

The analysis of Chieko Wataya and Mako Mori draws together different critical threads. The first is the projection of global space in transnational films in relation to the Mexican directors’ trajectory. Deborah Shaw has extensively explored the function of the transnational in both the production and the reception of these directors’ work, noting that ‘culture is rarely, if ever, “pure” and that there is no neat distinction between “Western” and non-Western: transnational movements of people and ideas must be considered’; and that it is false to categorise films as ‘Latin American’.[16] If Mexico is having a moment, partially thanks to these three high profile directors, it is only understood as such by defining the cultural spectrum from an Anglo-American centre, since their work both in English and Spanish (or multiple languages, in this case) is understood in the Spanish-speaking world according to different definitions of mainstream film production. Shaw still sees value in contrasting directors and works that share production characteristics, even if only to highlight differences in intent and effect. It would be equally artificial to declare Pacific Rim and Babel incomparable because of their disparate apparent genres. Indeed, genres have provided as incomplete a set of working categories as national cinemas. It is productive to explore not only the divergences, but also the parallels of different kinds of cinematic space.

The second major critical thread is the analysis of Hollywood images of Asia and Asian people, drawing on Jane Park’s concept of oriental style, which reinforces Shaw’s assertion of the impossibility of a pure national or ethnic product. Cultural creation and reception are all fissures.[17] Park and Marchetti both describe the emergence of post-modern pastiche as a prevailing aesthetic mode for global blockbusters, in which Asia becomes, in Marchetti’s words, ‘an imaginary construct of past representations from other mass-mediated sources’.[18] Park makes the additional critique that the ironic mode of using racial signifiers detaches race from the history of power and actual inequality, drawing on Nakamura’s concept of cosmetic multiculturalism.[19] This charge can be levelled at Pacific Rim, but with caveats that become clear through further analysis of the film’s multicultural characters.

Some existing critical approaches to the representation of Asia, particularly Marchetti’s, start from a standpoint of considering films within the context of consumption by U.S. domestic audiences. The transition Park described in its early stages is now complete: contemporary mega-blockbusters have to make their money back in the international market. This market constraint can either further or limit creativity, and certainly produces interesting effects in terms of the varied legibility of character and space in different markets. This constraint applies even for Babel and other films at the art film end of mainstream Hollywood. Despite their more limited financial expectations, spaces in these films must nevertheless be intelligible to an extremely diverse projected audience.

In Babel, Iñárritu tries to tell a situated but global story, both accessible and inaccessible at the same time. It explores the limits of communication but allows multiple entry points for different audiences to engage with the narrative. The film pivots around a single temporal point (the shooting) that represents a crisis occasioned by and occasioning violence. The strategy is the same as in the director’s breakthrough Amores perros.[20] However, with connections between the different characters even more dispersed than in the class-variegated Mexican setting of the earlier film, the use of a dramatic pivot point is less effective. As a result of tensions between the thematic ambitions and projected global audience of the film, the images of Chieko and her movement through Tokyo are neither truly local nor disruptively specific. Shaw’s discussion of the global gaze agilely critiques Babel’s use of a tourist perspective in contrast to the art film signifiers of Carlos Reygadas’s Japón.[21] The tourist gaze provides an organizing function. Iñárritu and cinematographer Prieto’s production designer Brigitte Broch portrayed Tokyo through a pink-purple palette representing the ‘diluted blood of futuristic essence’ in contrast to Mexico’s primary red for ‘straightforward Mexican passion’, with the overall aesthetic distinctions between locations geared at enhancing, according to Prieto, ‘the experience of feeling like you are in different places geographically and emotionally’.[22] Tokyo is the now-cliché site of hyper-modernity (versus Mexico where emotions are supposedly unmediated). It is a prevailing image of that city, with the small benefit of partially disrupting the ‘classic Orientalist spectrum of progress’ which situated Asia in the past.[23] Shaw suggests that Babel’s Tokyo responds to the demands of the international art film genre and its intended audience via employment of ‘familiar and expected locations and types’, in which ‘Japan is hyper-modern, featuring the latest mobile phones, cool clubs, trendy cafés, and impressive neon-bright cityscapes’.[24] Early in the Japan sequences the film presents now-stereotypical elements of urban Japanese adolescence, such as pop music videos and arcade games.

Rinko Kikuchi’s Globalised Body

Chieko herself, and her frustrated desire for a human connection and a way to physically express her grief and guilt, partly embodies the alienation associated with technologized modernity and the failure of technology to replace human contact. She uses technological aids for the deaf to assist in interacting with her environment and communicating with people. However, here these aids do not symbolise the Asian future’s technological erosion of the human, but the character’s intimate reality, an important difference. In critiquing Babel’s reinforcement of global images of Japan, Chieko’s specific experience notably disrupts some established readings of spaces, because they are intermittently silenced as the film shifts into her sensory point-of-view. Hearing members of the audience are required to make a cognitive leap to understand the difference in Chieko’s experiences of space. She perceives only part of what the hearing viewers do. In that partial perception, non-Japanese hearing viewers may also approximate something of the partiality of their own comprehension and the spatial experiences that are opaque to those outside the deaf community.

It is also interesting to consider, following Isabel Santaolalla’s analysis of the figure of the mute woman in cinema, the connections between Chieko’s relationship to language, her physicality and her sexuality.[25] Then 25 year old Kikuchi plays a teen girl who seeks power or reconnection through sex. Babel reproduces, among other tropes, a sexualised schoolgirl as the natural vessel for situating ‘urban Japanese teenage angst’.[26] However, Chieko’s sexual agency is presented without any kind of erotic charge geared at viewers. It emerges from her feelings, initially mysterious to the viewer and only gradually revealed as her sexual gambits intermingle with other seemingly aberrant behaviours to present a panorama of performances of confusion, guilt and pain. Analyses suggesting Chieko’s character functions as a sexually available version of the classic Orientalised woman who cannot reply and is presented purely for scopophilic consumption are unconvincing. Her relationship to both language and sex is more complex. Santaolalla has outlined the close association in certain films of the normalisation (the achievement of communication, especially speech) of the mute woman with social and sexual control—even, often, sexual violence and rape.[27] At the same time, Santaolalla is careful to underline the complexity of the interrelationship between body and silence/language, allowing that both, together or apart, may offer sites of resistance and challenge. In a key moment in Babel after a flirtation is derailed by the boy’s realisation of her deafness, Chieko signs that the hearing ‘look at us like we’re monsters’, and describes her vulva as the ‘hairy monster’. Sex is an attempt to reframe her own position in the eyes of others, to challenge their assumptions, and transform her experience of her own monstrousness (her guilt over her mother’s death) into something active.

The complexity of the body-language relationship also links to the tongue’s role as the instrument of speech. Chieko does not have audible speech, but uses her hands, the instrument of touch. Her tongue, meanwhile, becomes an instrument of touch in ways that unsettle the expected pathways of communication: she licks her dentist, and later she sucks on the policeman Mamiya’s finger. The written word, which provides an alternative channel for language, is only semi-legible to viewers. It is ultimately completely obscured when her final note to Mamiya, tucked into his hand, is concealed from the audience, contents unknowable. Chieko’s physical, emotional, and auditory isolation is the ultimate form of sovereignty, but she is desperate to breach it, to connect, to be human.[28] Entanglement and messiness are pathways to community. However, ultimately Chieko does not achieve this horizontal community, and certainly not on the terms by which she sought it.

The positioning of women’s bodies as sites for performing power goes beyond the narrative to extradiegetic features. The Babel team explicitly marked futuristic Tokyo with a pink-purple palette and gave the actor purple streaks in her hair to match the colour design. Del Toro similarly marked Mako through blue and also gave Kikuchi blue streaks in her hair.[29] However, in Pacific Rim, the blue is Mako’s own grief and trauma, the ongoing influence of her memory of loss, whereas in Babel the purple is remote from Chieko’s individual trauma and merges the character with the city. If Chieko’s image stands in for the future metropolis, it is vital to consider Chieko’s physical relationship to inside and outside spaces. Bringing together the disruptive opacity of her silent experience of space and her positioning in tension with the stereotypical sexualized Japanese schoolgirl are her public and semi-public nudity and partial nudity, for example, as well the intersection between the audio and the visual, and Kikuchi’s performance oscillating between disruptive monstrousness and other forms that suggest the cultural encoding of speech and body.

Shaw has also noted that to be effective a text must recognise its own limitations and the impossibility of universalism.[30] Babel relies on emotion for audience empathy rather than interrogating the function of class in a global system in determining the range of possibilities for its characters and its viewers. Empathy for supposedly universal human emotions leaves the audience mournful, perhaps, but also helpless. This emotional universalism tends to undermine the estrangement provoked by the moments in which the character’s experience remains resolutely illegible to an “outsider” (hearing and non-Japanese in the case of Chieko) viewer. Death, grief, and familial love are legible, but they are not human experiences that provoke action out of solidarity. If Chieko finds some solace or connection at all, it is through the closeness of death in the film’s flirtation with suicide and, perhaps, the reestablishment of a family unit—order—in her father’s embrace.

Mako, in contrast, has a conventional hero narrative, as can be seen in her triumph over trauma and realization of vengeance for past losses. The film is at least equally Mako’s, and del Toro describes her story—and her childhood memory—as the film’s heart (Pacific Rim director’s commentary). The male protagonist Raleigh and his brother Yancy are the initial heroes. Raleigh is framed as an impetuous youth who audiences expect will be tempered through undergoing some drastic trial, based on conventional Hollywood narrative. Hunnam is a large white man to put on posters and do English voiceover during battles. While the story of the U.S. couple (Blanchett and Brad Pitt) clearly propels Babel, despite the prologue of Pacific Rim showing the backstory of Raleigh rather than Mako it is her story that anchors the film. After Yancy’s death and Raleigh’s departure from the program, we discover that the Beckets’ jaeger (Gypsy Danger) was drastically altered by Mako, who is also shown to have technical skills and jaeger-combat abilities surpassing those of any other pilot candidate. Mako adds to Gypsy Danger a massive sword, allowing her to enact a samurai’s revenge for the loss of her family and community as she thrusts it through the body of a kaiju in the climactic battle. In another move with shades of Babel—unexpected in a film positioned in the action blockbuster marketplace—Mako speaks mostly Japanese. Her farewell to Pentecost—sensei, aishitemasu—is untranslated.[31] The full significance of a moment easily milked for sentiment is restricted to a knowing audience.[32]

In contrast to Babel, in which a known figure—the Japanese schoolgirl—is both used to make Japan swiftly legible to global audiences and disrupted by Chieko’s relation to sexuality and to language, the character of Mako draws on types perhaps less familiar outside Japan. Del Toro said of Mako that ‘She’s not going to be a sex kitten, she’s not going to come out in cut-off shorts and a tank top, and it’s going to be a real earnestly drawn character’.[33] To the extent that the Mako-Raleigh relationship has any erotic component, it is in her gaze on his body. In contrast to the nudity Chieko uses as part of her arsenal of challenging behaviours, Mako Mori is very clothed throughout. ‘As a means to, even the substance of, a commutable persona, clothing as performance threatens to undercut the ideological fixity of the human subject’.[34] This performative element of the subject, however, is also read differently by different audiences. Chieko’s nudity and Mako’s clothing/armour link to the audience’s reading of their characters as Japanese, or more generically as Asian women.[35] Inside Japan, both characters correspond to or subvert particular aesthetic traditions (principally from manga), whereas outside Japan this intertextual reading may be less obvious. Images of Asian women outside Asia are less nuanced; they do not draw on the full spectrum of female figures from all areas of cultural production as is naturally the case inside Asia. Instead, racial and gendered characteristics are often linked together in reductive essentialism. Shingler has outlined the way this expectation requires Asian stars to vacillate between stereotypical and universal subjectivity.[36]  In terms of Asian women performing opposite white men, Marchetti described the way ‘interracial sexuality’ and the use (and generally domination) of Asian women to confirm the heterosexuality of the hero had become a part of the ‘stylistic mélange’ of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking.[37] Charlie Hunnam is an imposing physical presence in the film; however, his character’s relationship with Kikuchi’s does not unfold along these lines. He is intermittently shirtless and Mako—and the audience—look at him, but despite the film’s projection of a jocular macho environment among male jaeger pilots and support staff involving the casual objectification of women, Mako herself is not sexually objectified either by the camera or by any character, including Raleigh, within the film. This environment contributes rather to the locker room effect of the male-dominated sports world, with Mako seamlessly assuming the role of untested but talented rookie.

The two characters, rather than potential lovers, are mirrors, with matching and converging narratives. In the choreography and the mise-en-scène Raleigh and Mako, when appearing together, are framed as physical counterparts, in balance with each other.  At their first meeting, Mako awaits him on an airstrip at the Shatterdome, and the two look at each other, each holding a black umbrella. (Umbrellas are prominent visual and narrative elements in manga and anime, although the constant rain also triggers comparison to Blade Runner). This initial encounter is bookended by the final shot of the two together in the film, their heads inclined towards each other, foreheads touching, and bodies in compositional symmetry as they kneel atop a life raft at sea. Between these two framing images there are many other instances of the two characters physically mirroring each other as they converge.

Among the most significant of these are the hand-to-hand fight choreography, supposed to indicate their elite combat capabilities but also, more importantly, their combat compatibility, and the subsequent sequences of them piloting Gypsy Danger side by side, clamped into synchronised interfaces. There is a dual doubling at work, with each other and with the machine, taking to a new level science fiction’s fascination with the limits of the human and the appeal of the non-human, especially where the non-human serves as the human’s double.[38] While the first and last shots of the two together suggest their joined character arcs, the choreographed mirrored sequences support Pacific Rim’s central concept of the drift, the memory-based telepathy allowing two (or more) compatible pilots to jointly control their jaeger.

Isolation versus Fusion in the Global Gaze

The experience of the drift serves as a motif of communion in terms of contrast to the individual isolation and alienation of Babel, an important point of contrast for the two films’ presentation of globalised subjects. The fusion of characters in Pacific Rim, the ways in which they are relational and intermingled even in how they experience their memories of their own past selves, is a more challenging concept of subjectivity than that put forth in Babel, which ultimately reinforces the integrity of the individual self and the obstacles in the way of transcending our isolation. This difference is not that surprising considering their different genres, with Babel in the realist art-film vein taking emotion—emanating from the self and building on the specificity of individual experience—as its centre, whereas Pacific Rim, in the way of science fiction, engages with the limits of the human.[39] Both films use central characters—notably Kikuchi’s Mako and Chieko—to show aspects of the human response to trauma and our capacity to understand the emotional components of our reaction to external threats on a global scale.

In the context of thinking about the interconnection of threat and trauma, it is relevant to analyse the two films’ treatment of the security apparatus that is supposed to reinforce our sense of integrity against an external force. The connections between borders and enclosure and the relationship between security and exclusion in Babel are obvious, but there are several ways in which Pacific Rim‘s engagement with these concepts is more disruptive. Babel shows the profound incapacity to communicate or transcend barriers. Its representation of unequal power and its relationship to global networks has already received a great deal of critical attention, which its explicit engagement with the consequences of globalisation positively invites.[40] Pacific Rim, in contrast, has one very obvious critique of the politically-motivated folly of building a wall that cannot hold, and the central plot of coming together to face a common enemy is a simplistic cliché. To consider this cliché in the context of the critical question of global visions in contemporary transnational film, the coming together of diverse characters may represent ‘the apotheosis of the transnational qualities so often associated with del Toro, with the giant robots dependent on the support of a racially and ethnically mixed group of human beings who can interact very effectively across national differences’.[41] In practice, however, beyond these clear representations of two different immediate responses to outside threats, the ways that both bodily and cultural boundaries are represented in Pacific Rim is more interesting.

Park relates Morley and Robins’ ‘techno-orientalism’ and Hollywood’s use of Tokyo as the ‘quintessential postmodern metropolis’ in which Japanese people are machine-like, suggesting that the self-hatred of modernity is displaced onto Asia.[42] Fear of modernity as symbolised by alienation in techno-mediated Tokyo is perhaps evident in Babel. In Pacific Rim, however, the prevailing mode is technophilia. Walls are not the solution. Fusing with technology is the solution. Even fusing with and loving the enemy is the solution. Boundaries, which are comforting illusions, must be transgressed. This transgressive tendency is one of the benefits of the genre. ‘Borders and markers in the science fiction film are seen as extendable—and their contents as spilling over into each other, possibly merging’.[43] From the film’s beginning, we see that the jaeger is as much a fantasy protection as the giant coastal wall, for Yancy Beckett is ripped out of Gypsy Danger’s skull—and ripped out of Raleigh’s mind—with ease. It is clear from that moment that jaeger fighting kaiju, though the film’s primary spectacle, cannot offer a solution. Only fascination as a starting point for becoming/assuming the cloak of the kaiju can liberate humanity from its coming destruction. The jaeger alone is imperfect, incomplete and penetrable. Similarly, the human characters are imperfect, incomplete and penetrable. Mako herself loathes the kaiju. But as del Toro explains, the characters in Pacific Rim are limited types that are really all one character. The characters move through different positions in a series of dyads of love/hatred, fascination/fear, technophilia/xenophilia, reason/instinct, obedience/rebellion, and arrogance/self-sacrifice. These, however, must somehow be fused or collapsed together for humanity to overcome its obstacles.

This is not to overstate the case the film makes for fusion as a mechanism for overcoming the alienation of contemporary human subjectivity, as Pacific Rim remains a story essentially about violently expelling aliens. In Babel, crossing boundaries and understanding the other, while nearly impossible and accomplished only in extremis, allow empathy and communion. While the narrative spans the globe, however, the focus on the intimacy of individual experience as a source of empathy means an answer for the disconnection and miscommunication between people remains elusive. In Pacific Rim, empathy, communion and understanding the other facilitate destruction and exclusion; at least when the other is the monstrous alien. By focusing on the continuities in del Toro’s work, his ‘focus on liminal characters caught between worlds’, this destruction and exclusion is undermined.[44] If Pacific Rim has indeed been successful enough to trigger a Pacific Rim 2, it would be unsurprising to see greater complexity brought to this conclusion—the kaiju were pushed back and cut off, not annihilated, after all. A triumphalist representation of the sacrifice of the jaeger and their pilots for the greater good of a united humanity, given the venality and pettiness of the wider world hinted at in the film, is unlikely to remain the prevailing vision. In del Toro’s worlds, barriers, whether between races, genders, species, past and present, or reality and fantasy, are rarely allowed to stand.


Anker Elizabeth, “In the Shadowlands of Sovereignty: The Politics of Enclosure in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel”, University of Toronto Quarterly: A Canadian Journal of the Humanities 82:4 (2013).

Bâ Saer Maty, Higbee Will, “Moving away from a sense of cultures as pure spaces. An Interview with Deborah Shaw”, in De-Westernizing Film Studies, ed. Saer Maty Bâ and Will Higbee (London/NY: Routledge) (2012).

Carreno Victor “Travels and Borders in the Representation of the U.S.-Mexico Border: Cartographies in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel”, International Journal of the Arts in Society 4:4 (2009).

Davies Laurence, “Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos, or the Pleasures of Impurity”, in Gothic Science Fiction 1980-2010. ed. S. Wasson and E Alder (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press) (2011).

Foucault Michel, “Des espaces autres. Hétérotopies”, Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité 5 (1984).

Gilchrist Todd. “Comic-Con 2012: Pacific Rim‘s Rinko Kikuchi Says She Was Jealous of Co-Star Charlie Day”, 19 July 2012 http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/comic-con-2012-pacific-rim-rinko-kikuchi-charlie-day351981, date accessed 28 September 2015.

Hanley Jane, “The Walls Fall Down”, Studies in Spanish and Latin American Cinemas [Studies in Hispanic Cinemas] 4:1 (2007).

Hutchings Peter, “Adapt or Die: Mimicry and Evolution in Guillermo del Toro’s English-Language Films”, in The Transnational Fantasies of Guillermo del Toro ed. A. Davies, D. Shaw and D. Tierney (London: Palgrave Macmillan) (2014).

Jones Norma, “Review of Pacific Rim”, Film & History 44:1 (2014).

Kerr Paul, “Babel’s network narrative: packaging a globalized art cinema” Transnational Cinemas 1:1 (2010).

Kuhn Annette, Alien Zone (New York: Verso) (1990).

Kuhn Annette, The Power of the Image: Essays on Representation and Sexuality, (London: Routledge) (1985).

Locke Richard, “Globalization and its Discontents”, The American Scholar 76:2 (2007).

Lopez Aguirre Sergio, “En entrevista con la protagonista de Pacific Rim, recuerda su filmografía” Cinepremiere 9 July 2013, http://www.cinepremiere.com.mx/30555-rinko-kikuchi-habla-de-titanes-del-pacifico-babel-murakami-y-mas.html date accessed 17 March 2015.

Marchetti Gina, Romance and the “Yellow Peril”: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction, (Berkeley: University of California Press) (1993).

Park Jane, Yellow Future: Oriental Style in Hollywood Cinema, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) (2010).

Raussert Wilfred, “Inter-American Border Discourses, Heterotopia, and Translocal Communities in Courtney Hunt’s Film Frozen River”, Norteamérica 6:1 (2011).

Santaolalla Isabel, “Bodyscapes of silence: The figure of the mute woman in the cinema”, Journal of Gender Studies 7:1 (1998).

Shaw Deborah, Contemporary Cinema of Latin America: Ten Key Films, (London: Continuum) (2003).

Shaw Deborah, “Babel and the Global Hollywood Gaze”, Situations 4:1 (2011).

Shaw Deborah, “(Trans)national images and cinematic spaces: The cases of Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también (2001) and Carlos Reygadas’ Japón (2002)”, Iberoamericana 11:44 (2011).

Shaw Deborah, The Three Amigos: The Transnational Filmmaking of Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Alfonso Cuarón, (Manchester: Manchester University Press) (2013).

Shingler Martin, Star Studies: A Critical Guide, (London: Palgrave Macmillan) (2012).

Sneider Jeff “Rodrigo Prieto, ‘Babel’”, Variety 3 January 2007, http://variety.com/2007/film/awards/rodrigo-prieto-babel-1117956612/, date accessed 15 September 2015.

Sobchack Vivian. 1990. The virginity of astronauts. In A. Kuhn (ed.) Alien Zone. New York: Verso.

Tamaki Saitō, Beautiful Fighting Girl transl. J. Keith Vincent and Dawn Lawson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) (2011).

Telotte J.P. “The Doubles of Fantasy and the Space of Desire” Alien Zone ed. Annette Kuhn (New York: Verso) (1990).

Tierney Dolores, “Alejandro González Iñárritu: director without borders”, New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film 7:2 (2009).


[1] Cuarón, Iñárritu and del Toro are the surnames commonly employed to refer to these directors in the English-speaking world, and will be used throughout.

[2] Peter Hutchings, “Adapt or Die: Mimicry and Evolution in Guillermo del Toro’s English-Language Films”, in The Transnational Fantasies of Guillermo del Toro ed. A. Davies, D. Shaw and D. Tierney (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), p.84.

[3] Peter Hutchings, p.85.

[4] The Devil’s Backbone (2001, Guillermo del Toro); Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, Guillermo del Toro).

[5] Jane Hanley, “The Walls Fall Down”, Studies in Spanish and Latin American Cinemas [Studies in Hispanic Cinemas] 4:1 (2007), pp.35-45.

[6] Peter Hutchings, p.86.

[7] Peter Hutchings, p.96.

[8] Laurence Davies, “Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos, or the Pleasures of Impurity” in Gothic Science Fiction 1980-2010 ed. S. Wasson & E Alder (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2011), p.88.

[9] DVD director’s commentary.

[10] Sergio López Aguirre, “En entrevista con la protagonista de Pacific Rim, recuerda su filmografía” Cinepremiere 9 July 2013, http://www.cinepremiere.com.mx/30555-rinko-kikuchi-habla-de-titanes-del-pacifico-babel-murakami-y-mas.html date accessed 17 March 2015.

[11] Norma Jones, “Review of Pacific Rim”, Film & History 44:1 (2014), p.45.

[12] The most obvious mecha referent that might come to mind for non-Japanese audiences, Neon Genesis Evangelion, is, according to del Toro, not a direct influence on the aesthetic of Pacific Rim in the way that some earlier mechas are (DVD director’s commentary).

[13] Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott).

[14] Michel Foucault, “Des espaces autres. Hétérotopies.” Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité 5 (1984), pp.46-49. The heterotopia now routinely appears in film analysis.

[15] Wilfred Raussert, “Inter-American Border Discourses, Heterotopia, and Translocal Communities in Courtney Hunt’s Film Frozen River”, Norteamérica 6:1 (2011), p.23.

[16] Deborah Shaw in Saer Maty Bà and Will Higbee “Moving away from a sense of cultures as pure spaces. An Interview with Deborah Shaw.” De-Westernizing Film Studies (London/NY: Routledge, 2012), p.236; Deborah Shaw, Contemporary Cinema of Latin America: Ten Key Films (London: Continuum, 2003), p.5.

[17] Jane Park, Yellow Future: Oriental Style in Hollywood Cinema (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), p.199.

[18] Gina Marchetti, Romance and the “Yellow Peril”: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), p.202.

[19] Jane Park, p.xi.

[20] Amores perros (2000, Alejandro González Iñárritu).

[21] Deborah Shaw, “(Trans)national images and cinematic spaces: The cases of Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también (2001) and Carlos Reygadas’ Japón (2002)”, Iberoamericana 11:44 (2011), pp.117-131.

[22]Rodrigo Prieto in Jeff Sneider, Rodrigo Prieto, ‘Babel’. Variety 3 January 2007, http://variety.com/2007/film/awards/rodrigo-prieto-babel-1117956612/, date accessed 15 September 2015.

[23] Jane Park, p.5.

[24] Deborah Shaw, “Babel and the Global Hollywood Gaze”, Situations 4:1 (2011), p.21.

[25] Isabel Santaolalla “Bodyscapes of silence: The figure of the mute woman in the cinema” Journal of Gender Studies 7:1 (1998), pp.53-61.

[26] Paul Kerr, “Babel’s network narrative: packaging a globalized art cinema”, Transnational Cinemas 1:1 (2011), p.47.

[27] Santoallalla, pp.57-58.

[28] Elizabeth Anker, “In the Shadowlands of Sovereignty: The Politics of Enclosure in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel”, University of Toronto Quarterly: A Canadian Journal of the Humanities 82:4 (2013), pp.950-73.

[29] DVD director’s commentary.

[30] Shaw “Babel”, p.26.

[31] Jones p.46.

[32] Rinko Kikuchi does not herself consider being Japanese an essential part of her role in the film, citing instead the universalism of stories (in Todd Gilchrist, “Comic-Con 2012: Pacific Rim‘s Rinko Kikuchi Says She Was Jealous of Co-Star Charlie Day”, 19 July 2012, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/comic-con-2012-pacific-rim-rinko-kikuchi-charlie-day351981, date accessed 28 September 2015). The signs of nationality in the intercultural space of Pacific Rim are empty; it is interpersonal fusion that is important.

[33] DVD director’s commentary.

[34] Annette Kuhn, The Power of the Image: Essays on Representation and Sexuality. London: Routledge, 1985) p.54.

[35] The omnipresence of the schoolgirl needs little elaboration. For an exploration of female warrior types in manga and anime see Tamaki, Saitō, Beautiful Fighting Girl transl. by J. Keith Vincent & Dawn Lawson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011). These types are discussed mainly with reference to girls rather than women, but Tamaki’s analysis is still informative for understanding the aesthetic and narrative for the character of Mako Mori and the complexity of presenting her in a non-sexual way.

[36] Martin Shingler, Star Studies: A Critical Guide (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p.179.

[37] Gina Marchetti, p.203.

[38] Telotte suggested that the spectatorial fascination of the double in science fiction is a narcissistic impulse that may suppose the dissolution of the desire for the other. J.P. Telotte “The Doubles of Fantasy and the Space of Desire” in Alien Zone ed. Annette Kuhn (New York: Verso, 1990).

In Pacific Rim, however, doubles—Raleigh/Mako, Raleigh/ his brother, other drift-compatible pilots, scientist/alien, the two scientists, and of course pilot/jaeger—are unstable and multiply, suggesting the fluidity and possibility of transcending the limits of the individual self.

[39] A priori definitions of the genre are problematic, but Kuhn notes that effective science fiction films have often prompted critics to zero in on the way speculative fictions can interrogate the prevailing preoccupations of their moment. Annette Kuhn “Alien”, p10.

[40] For example, Dolores Tierney, “Alejandro González Iñárritu: director without borders. New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film 7:2 (2009) pp.101-117; Victor Carreno, “Travels and Borders in the Representation of the U.S.-Mexico Border: Cartographies in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel”, International Journal of the Arts in Society 4:4 (2011), pp.265-274; Richard Locke, “Globalization and its Discontents”, The American Scholar 76:2 (2007), pp.114-117, among others.

[41] Peter Hutchings, pp.95-96.

[42] Jane Park, pp.7-8.

[43] Vivian Sobchack, “The virginity of astronauts” in Alien Zone ed. Annette Kuhn (New York: Verso, 1990), p.113.

[44] Peter Hutchings, p.93.

Jane Hanley is Head of Spanish and Latin American Studies in the Department of International Studies: Languages and Cultures at Macquarie University, Sydney. Her current research project is on the influence of transnational mobility and networks and the representation of transnational experience in different popular genres. She is a member of the Editorial Committee of the Journal of Iberian and Latin American Research. Dr Hanley coordinates Macquarie University’s Spanish language courses as well teaching on topics related to travel and tourism, migration, past and present popular culture in Spain, and contemporary Mexico. Her research interests include travel writing, transnational cultural production, and gender in Spanish-language popular culture. She is also interested in curriculum design and implementation, student assessment and student experiences of learning, and is currently Director of Quality and Standards for the Department of International Studies.

Clint Eastwoods’s Letters from Iwo Jima as a transnational film

Łukasz A.Plesnar

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 51-67.

Łukasz A.Plesnar

Jagiellonian University


Clint Eastwoods’s Letters from Iwo Jima as a transnational film


We may consider Letters from Iwo Jima as a typical transnational film. Its concept is based on Eastwood’s discovery of a General Kuribayashi’s book of letters and drawings, Picture Letters from Commander in Chief, collected and translated into English by Tsuyuko Yoshida (the original title: Gyokusa soshikikan no etegami). The script for Letters was written by a Japanese-American writer, Iris Yamashita, and Paul Haggis, Eastwood’s previous scripter. Despite having been produced by American companies (DreamWorks Pictures, Warner Bros Company, Malpaso Productions, and Ambling Entertainment), almost entire movie is in Japan.

The film functions as the second panel of the war diptych, being a twin to Flags of Our Fathers. Both movies depict the battle of Iwo Jima, but from the different perspectives: Flags from the American point of view, and the Letters from the Japanese one. Shooting his diptych, Eastwood decided to “show the two sides of a battle”, presenting the consequences of war on both sides. It was a feat that had never been attempted by any other filmmaker (except perhaps Lewis Milestone in All Quiet on the Western Front). Eastwood refutes the decades when the Americans demonied the Japanese, which began at the start of the war on Pacific. The director portraits the Japanese soldiers as “young and powerless and driven to madness or suicide” human beings, who are to be pitied, not hated. He tries to escape from stereotypical images of the Japanese society, Japanese soldiers, and Japanese culture, often presented in the American cinema. Main roles are cast with the Japanese while in the earlier Hollywood movies Japanese characters were generally performed by Chinese-Americans or Asian-Americans). This makes the film more authentic.

Letters was released in Japan and was commercially successful, receiving warm reception from critics and audiences. An English-dubbed version came out sixteen monts after its Japanese premiere.

Key words: transnational film, war movies, combat movies, representation, stereotypes, suicide, Japan, Clint Eastwood

Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, two movies produced by Clint Eastwood in 2006, are atypical and unusual works. “It was the first time a director made two films at the same time about the same event, which here is the battle over Iwo Jima in 1945”.[1] According to historians, this was one of the deadliest fights in the Pacific Campaign. Over the course of 36 days in February and March, the invasion forces of 110,000 Marines fought 22,000 entrenched Japanese infantrymen. Only 1,083 Japanese survived, while 6,821 Americans were killed and almost 20,000 wounded. The Imperial Army troops were commanded by General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, “a unique man, a man of great imagination, creativity and resourcefulness”[2], a soldier who went far beyond the traditional model of a Japanese officer, and who is one of the main characters of Letters from Iwo Jima.

Originally, Eastwood planned to make one film devoted to the battle of Iwo Jima: an adaptation of James Bradley’s book about six Marines raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi. However, while the director was working on Flags of Our Fathers, he discovered General Tadamichi Kuribayashi’s book of letters and drawings, Picture Letters from Commander in Chief, which had been published posthumously in Japanese in 1992 and then translated into English by Tsuyuko Yoshida.[3] It contained the General’s letters to his wife and children, including those written on Iwo Jima. “In the letters Eastwood found a Japanese voice”, Rikke Schubart writes. “He first considered adding a Japanese point of view to Flags, but then decided on making a second film instead. A film entirely dedicated to the Japanese point of view. And so, while doing post-production on Flags, Eastwood shot Letters from Iwo Jima in 32 days”.[4] Both Flags and Letters are independent movies, but at the same time, as Leo Braudy notes, “both are tremendously enriched by their juxtaposition and should be seen as a diptych”.[5]

Apart from many similarities, we can also notice numerous differences between Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. Firstly, Flags was shot in English with American actors, while Letters, despite having been produced by American companies (DreamWorks Pictures, Warner Bros Company, Malpaso Productions, and Ambling Entertainment), was kept in Japanese and engaged Japanese actors. Secondly, Flags was a 75 million dollar blockbuster movie, while Letters cost only 15 million dollars. Thirdly, Flags was originally aimed at an international audience, while Letters was directed above all at Japanese moviegoers. It is significant that an English-dubbed version of the film came out sixteen months after its Japanese premiere. The participation of Japanese actors speaking subtitled dialogue led to certain confusions. American spectators regarded the movie as a Japanese production. On the other hand, Letters won the Japanese Academy Award for the best foreign language film, which was an obvious paradox.

Differences between both Eastwood’s movies are not limited to the aspect of production, but go much further, referring also to the content. We could say, quoting the statement of Aaron Gerow, that Flags is “about how to remember the war, giving a new view on an incident everyone knows”, while Letters is “about listening to those who fought it, trying to create a memory tableau of something most people, including the Japanese, know little about”. Flags is also an attempt to deconstruct the Hollywood genre of war and combat films, while Letters “appears more simply as an American effort to understand the complex human beings on the other side, to tell the world that they were brave too”.[6]

Apart from the circumstances of the production process, we can list three reasons why Letters from Iwo Jima should be recognized as a transnational film: 1) adoption by the director of a Japanese point of view; 2) portrayal of Japanese soldiers—against the tradition of American war films—as simple, normal people, not as barbarians or even bloodthirsty wild beasts; 3) setting up the audience’s identification with some of the young soldiers by focusing on their individual stories and their unfolding relations.[7]

We may say that the way Eastwood builds the plot of Letters, describes its characters, and defines their motives leads him to the denial of a number of stereotypes that exist in American culture. Although these stereotypes primary refer to images of an enemy, they also relate indirectly to images of every „other”, whether racial or national. Nonetheless, the director is famous for the blunt attitude towards such stereotypes that he has demonstrated a number of times. He fought against the stereotype of a Native American as a tomahawk-wielding savage thirsty for the white man’s blood and living in the wilderness or on reservations (men) and a beautiful maiden (women) in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). He questioned various stereotypes of Afro Americans (as thugs, domestic workers, or a best friend of a white man) in Bird (1988) and that of an African as a naked black guy brandishing spears and fighting with their neighbours in White Hunter, Black Heart (1990). Finally, he waged a war with the stereotypes of Hispanic American women as maids, sexpots, or immigrants in Blood Work (2002) as well as with the stereotypes of Asian Americans as kung fu fighters or a technical experts (men) and prostitutes (women) in Gran Torino (2008).

The majority of stereotypes are of national nature in two senses of the word. Firstly, they frequently come into existence and are formed within a group we call a nation. Secondly, they often refer to nations. Obviously, stereotypes differ according to both their subjects and objects (for instance, Poles have quite different stereotypes of Russians than do Serbians [8], just as Jews see Palestinians completely unlike Egyptians or Saudi Arabians). I want to stress that stereotypes might sometimes be modified over the course of time, but usually they are relatively stable.

Cinema is a domain where stereotypes occur very often. We may even say that the history of film is the history of disseminating stereotypes. Rejection of national and racial stereotypes is not so easy when you consider viewers’ expectations and their cultural training as well as a filmmaker himself being trapped in the stereotype network of his own culture. However, success means something special: the transition from the sphere of national to the sphere of transnational. To paraphrase the words of Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden, we may say that the key to transnationalism is the recognition of the decline of national stereotypes as a regulatory force in global cinema.[9]

I have already mentioned the extremely stereotypical images of the Japanese in the American films produced during World War II. This subject will be discussed in more detail in a later part of this study. However, it is interesting whether the images of Americans and other enemies of the Empire were equally stereotypical in the Japanese films from the same period. The answer is surprising: no. Japanese films, including war and combat movies, rarely presented or even mentioned the enemy; battles were often filmed simply from the Japanese side, showing no opposing soldiers. Even the leading propaganda movie, Kajirō Yamamoto’s The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malay (Hawai Marē oki kaisen, 1942)—made to commemorate the first anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor—paid little attention to the Americans. The main reason seems to be simple: “Japanese racism was less concerned with the denigration of others than with the elevation of themselves, with affirming their status as an allegedly superior and chosen people”.[10] As a result, on-screen Japanese soldiers were depicted as living in an exclusive world of camaraderie and racial affinity. Images of enemies were needless.

Obviously, this was not the absolute rule. A number of jidaigeki movies stirred up “a passionate hatred among the populace against Japan’s ‘historic enemy’ (shukuteki), the Anglo-Saxon powers”[11]. Some films, for instance Tomotaka Tasaka’s Mud and Soldiers (Tsuchi to heitai – 1939) and Yoshimura Kōzaburō’s The Legend of Tank Commander Nishizumi (Nishizumi senshachō den – 1940), presented the “inhuman” qualities of the Chinese, and Imai Tadashi’s Suicide Troops of the Watchtower (Bōrō no kesshitai – 1943) depicted the Korean communist guerrillas as bloodthirsty beasts (though the image of “normal” Koreans was relatively positive).

Paradoxically, the most negative image of American soldiers, politicians and culture can be found in Taku Shinjō’s For Those We Love (Ore wa, kimi no tame ni koso shini ni iku – 2007), a quite recent production about the kamikaze pilots of World War II. The movie has triggered many controversies in the United States, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zeeland as it portrayed pilots’ suicides as courageous and honourable, whereas the Allied forces, the victims of their attacks, were shown as brutal aggressors with no honour or sense of duty.

Let us return to Letters from Iwo Jima. The “soul” of Eastwood’s film and one of its main figures is the baker-turned-soldier, Private Saigo (played by pop star Kazunari Ninomiya), who has promised his young pregnant wife not to kill himself, to return home alive, and to never fire a shot. His name is symbolic, as it means “the last” in Japanese. Indeed, he is the only Japanese character who has survived the bloody slaughter on Iwo Jima. Saigo is not only a Japanese baker or soldier, but also an “everyman”, one of us, somebody who loves his family and profession, thinks about his future, and primarily wants to live. He cannot adapt to military life, he does not accept the callousness of the Japanese army based on a strict hierarchy and the absolute obedience of soldiers, and he cowers under the stare of fanatic and indoctrinated officers. He feels the absurdity of being forced into a battle in which “only death awaits”.[12] Ikui Eikoh notices that “a hero like Saigo is exceptional less in Japanese history than in the history of Japanese film”[13], because he is weak, frightened, defenceless, and lost, or using the words of Lars-Martin Sorensen because “he is … normal”.[14]

Saigo is not the only “normal”, unheroic, and rational Japanese soldier in Letters from Iwo Jima. Private Nozaki (Yuki Matzusaki), accused of treason by an over-zealous officer, and Private Shimizu (Kase Ryo) are other ones. They, as Saigo, fight the rules and customs common in the Imperial Army: absolute hierarchy, ruthless obedience, and fanaticism inspired by the highest command. In one of the few scenes in the film that take place in Japan, we see a military police officer (Kempeitai) who orders Shimizu, a young recruit, to shoot a child’s pet dog as a test of his toughness and loyalty. When Shimizu tries to save the dog, he is dismissed and sent to Iwo Jima to face inevitable death. There his comrades accuse him—unjustly, of course—of being a Kempeitai informer. Fortunately, a conversation with Saigo clears up the misunderstanding. Both soldiers notice they have very similar opinions and attitudes. They consider the war in the name of the Emperor and abstract ideas of love of the country, honour, and imperial patriotism absurd. They also feel that they are too young to lay down their lives in a doomed war. They refused to commit suicide (after the others in their platoon had all killed themselves) and decided to surrender to the Americans. Shimizu goes first but is killed by two American guards. Saigo fails to move and preserves his life.

The killing of Shimizu by American guards reverses elementary Hollywood conventions of combat films: U.S. Marines, usually presented as good guys, perpetrate a crime on a Japanese soldier, shown usually as a bad guy. This murder is committed for no apparent reason, in fear of Shimizu and the reputation of the Imperial Army. The crime makes no sense: it is a savage and purposeless act that was most often attributed to the enemies of America in Hollywood movies. Therefore, Eastwood eventually overturns repartition of values: U.S. Marines are bad guys while Shimizu turns out to be a good guy.

Shimizu has bad luck. On the contrary, Saigo is lucky. Late in the film, Saigo and other Japanese soldiers are told by their commanding officers to defend Mount Suribachi with their lives. Desperate and distraught men begin committing suicide. However, Saigo refuses to kill himself, escapes the mountains, and goes to the base of operations where he meets General Kuribayashi. The General orders Saigo to burn all the documents whilst he leads the surviving soldiers for one final nighttime attack on the American troops. Saigo, fulfilling the order, burns the military documents and buries the pouch containing thousands of letters written by the soldiers and never delivered to Japan. In the bloody assault, Kuribayashi is fatally wounded and asks Saigo for a last favour: to bury him where he would not be found. In the closing shot of Letters, we see Saigo, captured by the U.S. forces, lying amongst many wounded American soldiers. His face is turned toward the camera. As Rikke Schubart writes, “This man—no hero, no saviour, no decorated corpsman or admired general—survives. He is the future, not to honour or mourn, but to emulate. He returns to his wife and child”.[15]

This scene also contains another message reconstructed by Ian Buruma: “Lying under his army blanket”, he notes, “waiting to be taken off the island of death, Saigo is no different from the Americans lined up beside him, and yet it is unmistakably him; and that is the point of Eastwood’s remarkable movie”.[16] This construction can be, and in fact should be, easily extended. It seems to me that the director makes it clear that all national, ethnic, racial, cultural, and religious distinctions are not important because in fact we are all alike. Alternatively, in other words, differences between people do not depend on national, ethnic, cultural, and religious factors. As Mikkel Bruun Zangenberg sums up: “Eastwood seems to suggest, we are all simple human beings endowed neither with the sadistic urge to kill nor with a fervent desire to fight for some abstract notion of ‘love of country’”.[17]

However, Zangenberg in his generalization takes things too far because in Letters Eastwood portraits not only “simple human beings”, but also soldiers and civilians brainwashed by the military government and the tradition of the bushido code. Lieutenant Ito (Shido Nakamura) is a good example. He is obsessed with driving his men to honour suicide; ironically, he fails to kill himself and is imprisoned by U.S. Marines. In addition, many other officers, educated in strict military discipline and samurai tradition, are soulless, cruel, and ignorant, and seem more concerned with achieving a glorious suicidal death than defending Iwo Jima. Some of the civilians are indoctrinated too. When Saigo is conscripted into the Imperial Army, his neighbours and friends keep congratulating him and repeating that he is lucky to be chosen to die for his country.

Eastwood presents the problem of indoctrination as a conflict between simple soldiers and officers. While the soldiers are primarily concerned with survival and comradeship among themselves, the officers are caught in the trap of ideological thinking in terms of patriotism, honour, self-sacrifice, and fate. Nevertheless, not all of them are fully incapacitated by ideology, upbringing, and traditional samurai code. The director shows two senior officers who are exceptional: General Tademichi Kuribayashi and Colonel Baron Takeichi Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara).

General Kuribayashi left his post as head of the Emperor’s Palace Guard “to lead what would turn out to be the suicidal defence of Iwo Jima, with all naval air support withdrawn”.[18] After he arrived at the island, he deviated from traditional Japanese war strategy that “dictates that an island should be defended by pillboxes on the beaches”.[19] Instead, he ordered his men to hew in the rocks of Mount Suribachi 28 kilometres of tunnels and 5,000 caves, which turned the Japanese infantry positions into nearly impregnable fortress. As a human being, Kuribayashi was a caring person. He protected his men against abusive officers, ordered equal food rations for officers and simple soldiers, and shared his water. Besides, he had the best qualities of the real warrior: he was tough, manly, courteous, and good-looking.

Kuribayashi is a cosmopolitan figure. He knows the United States well because he spent five years there as a military attaché. He likes this country, has American friends, and respects American values and the American way of life. One flashback shows his memory of a banquet dinner held in his honour at Fort Bliss in the late 1920s. Sitting in the dark cave on Iwo Jima, he recalls the moment when an American officer presents him with a Colt .45 “as a token of friendship”. Rikke Schubart writes, “We understand this is a painful memory of a happy moment. Kuribayashi treasures the gun, which he wears in his belt and with which he will commit suicide. Now, 54 years old, time is testing him. The commander’s conflict is obvious to us, torn as he is between his own convictions and those of his nation. Because, alas, they are not the same”.[20] The General “is no longer an enemy. Having travelled back in time and into his thoughts, we feel that we know him and that he is now a fellow being”.[21]

Besides Saigo, Kuribayashi is the main character of Letters from Iwo Jima. Both are similar in a way; but at the same time, both are quite different. They experience internal conflict between the demands of the intrusive rationality of war (survival above all else) and the cultural obligation to die for the country and the Emperor. However, they choose different solutions. Saigo decides on life, homecoming, and meeting his newborn daughter. The General, on the other hand, chooses honour death. When he recognizes the situation of his soldiers as hopeless, he orders the general attack on the American lines telling his men to be proud to die for their homeland. Then he takes his sword and leads his soldiers on the last charge.

Kuribayashi is fatally wounded during the assault and he orders his aide-de-camp to behead him with his sword, but the lieutenant is shot before the blow. Because of his injuries, Kuribayashi cannot hold his sword, so he uses the gun. “Ironically, the American gift of friendship leads to Japanese suicide”.[22]

The Colt .45 as a tool of suicide is a symbolic requisite. On the one hand, it represents American mythology and violence (as a well-known object of the history of the United States and many cultural texts, for example numerous literary or cinematographic Westerns); on the other hand it symbolizes friendship, honour, valour, pride, and politeness (as a gift). Nevertheless, it also symbolizes death, war, destruction, and self-destruction (as a weapon). For Kuribayashi it is an important bond with his happy past, days of peace, a time of innocence. It is also a tool of suicide that differs from the traditional Japanese tool used for that purpose. We may say that the gun is an object in which elements of the American and Japanese cultures meet. Maybe, more precisely, it is an agent of westernisation of Japanese culture.

Kuribayashi is not the only character in Letters from Iwo Jima with any personal knowledge of America and Americans: Colonel Baron Takeichi Nishi is another. He is an aristocrat and an equestrian who had won the gold medal in the individual jumping event of the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. As a well-known and rich man, he entertained Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, the famous actors of the era, at his home. His attitude to an enemy does not resemble traditional Japanese customs. Instead of killing a wounded young U.S. Marine soldier, Sam (Lucas Elliot Eberl), Nishi treats him with the last dose of morphine and reminisces about happy old days and his Hollywood friends. After the GI dies from his injuries, Nishi reads out a letter from the boy’s mother, “Remember what I said to you: always do what is right because it is right”. The letter enlightens Japanese soldiers that the Americans were just like them. Later despite bushido code and opinions of other officers, Nishi orders his infantry men not to commit suicide.

The Colonel seems to be even more cosmopolitan than Kuribayashi. He was a ladies’ man, attracted to the glamour of society life. As Ian Buruna writes, “Nishi has the hearty manners of a sporting Englishman. He is rather like the Erich von Stroheim character in Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion, a member of the international aristocracy, in home in any place where wine, horses, and women have an acceptable pedigree”.[23] However, when Nishi is blinded by an explosion and unable to lead his soldiers, he commits suicide. His cosmopolitism turned out to be a coat covering deeply hidden nationalism. I think this way because I agree with Rikke Schubart, who notes, “Letters makes it crystal clear that suicide is a perverted nationalism”.[24] This means that Kuribayashi was a kind of nationalist too. Or rather, he was loyal to the national ethos he did not share, but obeyed. In his last message to the Imperial Headquarters, he wrote, “Our ammunition is gone and our water dried up. Now is the time for us to make the final counterattack and fight gallantly, conscious of the Emperor’s favour, not begrudging our efforts though they turn our bones to powder and pulverize our bodies. I believe that until the island is recaptured, the Emperor’s domain will be eternally insecure. I therefore swear that even when I have become a ghost I shall look forward to turning the defeat of the Imperial Army to victory. I stand now at the beginning of the end. At the same time as revealing my innermost feelings, I pray earnestly for the unfailing victory and security of the Empire. Farewell for all eternity”.[25]

General Kuribayashi and Colonel Nishi are the tragic heroes in an Aristotelian sense of the term. Firstly, they face the insoluble conflict. As we already know, this is a conflict between the rationality of war and a cultural or ideological obligation to die for the country and the Emperor. Kuribayashi and Nishi have Free Will, so they can choose. Each choice, however, leads to suffering and disaster. To choose survival means to be disloyal to military oath, to the Emperor, to the State, and to the Japanese tradition, and eventually to lose everything that is of great worth: face, honour, respect, and a place in history. On the other hand, to choose self-sacrifice means to lose life on earth, worldly possessions, family, happiness, and future; in other words, everything that a human being knows empirically. Every choice is wrong. The tragic hero is a victim and a culprit at the same time. He is guilty of so-called hamartia, meaning that he has made a bad decision or miscalculation because of “poor reasoning” or an external stimulus (e.g. interventions of Gods or divine madness in ancient tragedy). I enclose the expression poor reasoning in quotation marks because a tragic hero, ex definitione, does not use “proper reasoning”; his reasoning is always poor. It results from circumstances and limited knowledge of human beings. A typical tragic hero makes a bad decision because he sees only one way. For instance, many Japanese infantrymen on Iwo Jima chose death over surrender because, as Robert S. Burrell writes, “most soldiers believed Americans massacred and tortured prisoners. In particular, the Japanese were taught to despise Marines, who purportedly had to murder their own parents to qualify for enlistment”.[26] However, Kuribayashi and Nishi were broadminded men with extensive knowledge partly based on their personal experiences. That is why they were double guilty of hamartia and thus double tragic; they must have seen more than one way out.

By building the figures of Kuribayashi and Nishi as tragic heroes, Eastwood precludes our privilege of judging their proceedings in terms of right and wrong. Certainly, it does not mean that they do not participate in the Manichean conflict between good and evil: it only means that their individual decisions do not influence the ultimate result of that eternal struggle, as it must continue until the end of our world. Kuribayashi and Nishi are only insignificant puppets in the theatre of life. They are fated to fail; in other words, they have to die.

Nevertheless, the character of Kuribayashi seems to be somewhat internally contradictory. Initially, he forbids his soldiers to use banzai charges and counterattacks, but at the end of the film, he leads his men to a suicidal assault on American lines. He likes and understands Americans. During the ceremonial banquet dinner at Fort Blass he says, “The United States is the last country in the world Japan should fight”. However, on Iwo Jima he writes the following order to his men: “Each of your shots must kill many Americans. We cannot allow ourselves to be captured by the enemy. If our positions are overrun, we will take bombs and grenades and throw ourselves under the tanks to destroy them. We will infiltrate the enemy lines to exterminate them. No man must die until he has killed at least ten Americans. We will harass the enemy with guerrilla actions until the last of us has perished”.[27]

Eastwood does not question Kuribayashi’s command. “He shows the despair of some of the Japanese soldiers who are ordered to die, admittedly, but he does not critically engage Kuribayashi’s orders to die defending the island, or his heroic character for that matter”.[28]

Aaron Gerow wonders whether Eastwood, in honouring soldiers like Kuribayachi, “may be unwittingly engaging in the same process of creating ‘heroes’ that Flags of Our Fathers criticized, albeit for another country”.[29] This is even truer because the practice of honour suicide in form of seppuku or banzai seems to be Eastwood’s most important tool to humanize Japanese characters. That praxis is also, as Robert Burgoyne notes, “the key to the film’s tragic tone and the act that carries the strongest anti-war charge”.[30] The author notices that Eastwood does not depict self-sacrifice “as a weapon, a tactic or strategy of war”, but rather “as a means of bearing witness to a cause”.[31] Such treatment of self-destruction is nothing new: Ancient Romans used it as a means of protest; ancient Israelites as a message to their contemporaries and descendants that Jews would never be “servants to the Romans, nor to any other than to God Himself”[32]; early Christian martyrs as a way to follow in Jesus’ footsteps; and present-day Buddhist monks in Tibet as a call of protest against Chinese occupation. Even Americans had an experience with something like banzai in the defence to the last man of Alamo Mission in 1836. Polish moviegoers remember the case of Michał Wołodyjowski and Hassling-Ketling of Elgin who blew themselves up in Kamieniec Podolski in 1672, which was described by Henryk Sienkiewicz in his famous novel Pan Wołodyjowski and shown in its adaptation for the screen by Jerzy Hoffman.

In Eastwood’s movie, the acts of self-sacrifice are of great importance. As Robert Burgoybe writes, “Seen as an instance of testimony—a speech act—the suicides depicted in Letters from Iwo Jima can be associated with the ‘letters’ of the film’s title. The film reframes the act in a way that emphasises the body of the soldier as a site of competing message, a text that exceeds its culturally sanctioned meanings in the coded discourses of war, becoming instead a site of self-authorship”.[33]

The first ritual suicide scene in Letters from Iwo Jima is demonstrative and moving. Let me once more quote Burgoyne: “The officer in charge … decides to disobey General Kuribayashi’s order to retreat and orders his men to ‘die with honour’ … Each soldier draws a grenade, struggles to fight back on overwhelming sense of fear and sorrow, and then blows himself up. The care, shown previously in the monochrome colours of pewter and charcoal, suddenly erupts into a sickening orange-red as the bodies of the soldiers burst open … As the camera observes each soldier’s internal agony in extended psychological close-up, the powerful sense of identification and empathy that the collective suicides elicit is countered by an equally strong sense, underscored by the character’s behaviour, lighting and sound, of suicide as profoundly ‘Other’, as transgression, as taboo”.[34]

I would like to stress that, showing the scenes of honour deaths and banzai, Eastwood deprives individual and collective suicide of connotation with something barbarian, uncivilized, and primitive. While self-sacrifice is primarily motivated culturally, it is also a question of being true to oneself and to individual values, of loyalty to commanders and soldier fellows, and of inflexibility and courage. We may acknowledge those who commit suicide as victims of traditions, ideology, or upbringing. However, we may also acknowledge them as heroes because they are able to overcome fear, to give their life to a cause and to show extremely strong will.

As I have already mentioned, in Letters from Iwo Jima Eastwood tries to escape from stereotypical images of the Japanese and to refute the decades when the Americans demonized them as a result of the war on Pacific. Since Pearl Harbor, American films have built an extremely negative image of the Japanese as aliens, traitors, barbarians, and creatures unworthy of the name of human beings. They were accused of sadism, brutality, fanaticism, perversity, dishonesty, indecency, lack of dignity, and shortage of empathy, as well as of hatred and contempt for their enemies. What is very important is that these attributes belonged to almost all of the Japanese. “On American screens”, Wang Xiaofei notes, “Japanese soldiers were repeatedly shown torturing POWs, killing civilians, and raping Chinese women. Japanese soldiers laughed when they were killing (Ray Enright’s Gung Ho! The True Story of Carlson’s Makin Island Raiders, 1943), when they were raping Chinese women (John Farrow’s China, 1943, Harold S. Buckuet’s and Jack Conway’s Dragoon Seed, 1944), or when they knew other soldiers had won a bloody battle (Lewis Milestone’s The Purple Heart, 1944). They smiled when they tried to ‘persuade’ American prisoners to speak (Edward Dmytryk’s Behind the Rising Sun, 1943 and Purple Heart). Japanese soldiers were also portrayed as sons of the jungle. They shot American soldiers in the back and they pretended to surrender only in order to kill GIs”.[35]

         Kathryn Kane notices that in American combat films, Japanese soldiers were shown as nameless and faceless, not people who could think and act as individuals.[36] They were anonymous masses specially created to be killed by American heroes. If some Japanese survived, they would probably commit seppuku (this ritual was presented in Edwin S. Martin’s Invisible Agent, 1942, in Behind the Rising Sun, Purple Heart, and in Frank Lloyd’s Blood on the Sand, 1945). Sometimes the presence of Japanese soldiers was only suggested. Xiaofei quotes the excerpt from the program to Tay Garnett’s Bataan (1943): “the Japs are totally impersonal; we don’t even see the planes—only their bombs and bullets and the damage they do”.[37]

         Ian Buruma explains why we encounter faceless enemies in many combat films: “More war movies have been about heroes, and individual differences among the enemies were irrelevant, since their villainy could be taken for granted … The whole point of feel-good propaganda is that the enemy has no personality; he is monolithic and thus inhuman”.[38]

         It is obvious that Eastwood does not use such a strategy in Letters from Iwo Jimia. On the contrary, he individualizes his characters: Saigo, Kuribayashi, Nishi, Shimizu, and even Ito. We get to know a lot about their lives, families, likes and dislikes, and systems of values. They are human beings to the core. They have their distinctive features so that they are easily recognizable by the audience. They are no more “Others”: they are like our friends and people around us.

The viewers find out a lot about the characters from flashbacks. Three of them belong to Kuribayashi (his visit to the United States as a military attaché), one to Saigo (call-up), and one to Shimizu (the incident with a pet dog and a Kempetai officer), and all are memories of a past prior to the war. They differ from the remaining fragments of the film in higher colour saturation; the scenes on Iwo Jima are almost drained of colour, restricting themselves to “an attenuated palette of pewter greys and pumice browns”.[39]

The use of flashbacks allows viewers to get into the minds of characters and to come to know their thoughts, emotions, and way of reasoning. In building such images of the Japanese characters, Eastwood breaks and deconstructs the conventions of war and combat films (although to a lesser degree than in Flags of Our Fathers). This does not mean the director ignores and rejects the whole genre’s tradition. Letters of Iwo Jima also preserves some of the fundamental tenets of combat movies. It follows the track of films such as Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s Westfront 1918: Vier von der Infanterie (1930), Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), William A Wellman’s Bastogne (1949), and Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (1951), all works that are distinguishable by a high degree of realism. However, absolute realism is impossible as combat movies contain acts of violence. As Stephen Prince writes, “the cinema cannot present violence in other than a pleasure-inducing capacity … The medium inevitably aestheticizes violence. The arousal and expression in cinema of ‘negative’ emotions—fear, anxiety, pain—typically occur as part of a pleasure-inducing aesthetic experience”. The reason is simple: “It seems likely that representations of violence on screen that are unrelentingly horrifying, nauseating, or disgusting will fail to attract viewers”.[40] Authentic images of combat violence are horrifying, nauseating, and disgusting.

Eastwood sets a high value on psychological realism. Sometimes, however, he abandons visual realism in favour of aesthetization of images that intensifies the film’s influence. This is true, among others, of battle scenes and those presenting ritual suicides and banzai. I have already mentioned, quoting Robert Burgoyne, the sequence showing the first collective suicide. This fragment is tragic and startling but it is extraordinarily beautiful at the same time. The aesthetization of death, wounds, and blood gives the audience pleasure in seeing the film. If the viewers looked at those horrors in reality, they would never feel satisfaction. Most of them would probably have to close their eyes.

I believe Letters from Iwo Jima is an almost standard example of a transnational film, both on production and plot levels. However, it does not mean it is an absolute turning point in American-Japanese cinematographic relations. As we already know, during the Second World War and the next decade Hollywood directors portrayed the Japanese as brutal and barbarian villains representing a lower and more primitive human race. However, in the mid-1950s they began to hint, in movies like Daniel Mann’s The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956) and Joshua Logan’s Sayonara (1957), that the Japanese were not so alien and uncivilized. By the 1960s, even the war on Pacific was represented as more humane and noble. As Michael Paris writes, in Frank Sinatra’s None but the Brave (1965) and John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific (1969), “it is even suggested that some Japanese soldiers were not very different from Americans”.[41] Both films were American-Japanese co-productions, as was Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) directed by Richard Fleischer, Kinji Fukasaku, and Toshio Masuda, which was “a detailed examination of the attack on Pearl Harbor, but told with remarkable fairness”.[42] In subsequent years, a number of films appeared which were sympathetic to Japanese culture, tradition, and way of life. For example, movies such as Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza (1975) (“the first serious attempt of Western filmmakers to depict code-driven, context-driven interactions between peoples in Japan”[43]), John G. Avildsen’s The Karate Kid (1984), Fran Rubel Kuzui’s Tokyo Pop (1988), Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai (2003), Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), and Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha (2005).

However, Letters from Iwo Jima is an exceptional film. It is the only American combat movie made from a Japanese point of view and the only in which the author tries to understand and show respect to old Japanese customs and contemporary contradictions of Japanese ego. Eastwood reveals intense empathy towards the perfect cultural strangers who, by virtue of a government decision, became enemies of the United States. However, looking at somebody as at an enemy does not mean regarding him as a being deprived of humanity: a barbarian and a wild beast. Eastwood admits the very term “enemy” to be shady. Saigo, Shimizu, Kuribayashi, Nishi, and even Ito are not enemies. They are “trapped in a narrative of the primacy of patriotism, honour, and fate”[44] and led by cynical political leaders. Therefore, the true enemies are “politicians—the ones who are never seen in battle, but who willingly send soldiers off to die for a cause whose underlying rationale is virtually inscrutable”.[45] Japanese soldiers are victims, not perpetrators. They are to be pitied, not hated.



Braudy Leo, “Flags of Our Fathers / Letters of Iwo Jima”, Film Quarterly 60: 4 (2007).

Budd David H., Culture Meets Culture in the Movies: An Analysis East, West, North and South, with Filmohraphies (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland) (2002)

Burgoyne Robert, “Suicide in ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’” in Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, ed. Rikke Schubart and Anne Gjelsvik (New York: Columbia University Press) (2013).

Burrell Robert S., The Ghost of Iwo Jima (College Station: Texas A&M University Press) (2006).

Buruma Ian, “Eastwood War: The Battle of Iwo Jima”, Japan Focus, 5,  http://www.apjjf.org/-Ian-Buruma/2360/article.html, date accessed 28 July 2016.

Eikoh Ikui, „’Letters from Iwo Jima’: Japanese Perspectives”, Japan Focus, 2,  http://www.japanfocus.org/-Ikui-Eikoh/2417, date accessed 28 July 2016.

Ezra Elizabeth and Rowden Terry, „General Introduction: What is Transnational Cinema? [in:] Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden (eds.), Transnational Cinema. The Film Reader (London and New York: Routledge) (2006)

Flavius Josephus, The Works of Flavius Josephus, the Learned and Authentic Jewish Historian, translated by William Whiston, A.M., vol. II (London: Henry G. Bohn) (1845).

Freiberg Freda, „China Nights (Japan, 1940): The Sustaining Romance [in:] John Whiteclay Chambers II, David Culbert (eds.), World War II, Film, and History (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press) (1996).

Gerow Aaron, “From ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ to ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’: Clint Eastwood’s Balancing of Japanese and American Perspective”, http://apjjf.org/-Aaron-Gerow/2290/article.html, date accessed 26 July 2016.

High Peter B., The Imperial Screen. Japanese Film Culture in the Fifteen Years’ War, 1931-1945 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press) (2003).

Kakekashi Kumiko, Letters from Iwo Jima (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson) (2007).

Kane Kathryn, Vision of War: Hollywood Combat Films of World War II (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press) (1982).

Paris Michael, “‘What Happened was Wrong!: Come See the Paradise’ and the Japanese-American Experience in the Second World War” in Repicturing the Second World War: Representations in Film and Television, ed. Michael Paris (London: Palgrave Macmillan) (2007),.

Prince Stephen (ed.), Screening violence (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press) (2000).

Schubart Rikke, “Eastwood and the Enemy” in Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, ed. Rikke Schubart and Anne Gjelsvik (New York: Columbia University Press) (2013).

Schubart Rikke and Gjelsvik Anne, “Intruduction: Know Your Enemy, Know Yourself” in Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, ed. Rikke Schubart and Anne Gjelsvik (New York: Columbia University Press)  (2013).

Sorensen Lars-Martin, “East of Eastwood. Iwo Jima and the Japanese Context” in Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, ed. Rikke Schubart and Anne Gjelsvik (New York: Columbia University Press) (2013).

Vaux Sara Anson, The Ethical Vision of Clint Eastwood (Grand Rapids, Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company) (2012).

“Tadamichi Kuribayashi”, http://www.wikiwand.com/en/Tadamichi_Kuribayashi, date accesed 4 August, 2016).

Xiaofei Wang, “Movies Without Mercy: Race, War, and Images of Japanese People in American Films, 1942-1945”, Journal of Amrican – East Asian Relations 18 (2011).

Zangenberg Mikkel Bruun, „Humanism versus Patriotism? Eastwood Trapped in the Bi-Polar Logic of Warfare” in Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, ed. Rikke Schubart and Anne Gjelsvik (New York: Columbia University Press) (2013).


[1] Rikke Schubart and Anne Gjelsvik, “Introduction: Know Your Enemy, Know Yourself” [in:] Rikke Schubart & Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’ (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), p. 1.

[2] Eastwood quoted from the press material for the film Letters from Iwo Jima, “Letters from Iwo Jima Production Information”, 4.

[3] Another book that influenced and inspired Eastwood was Kumiko Kakekashi’s Letters from Iwo Jima (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007), originally published as Chipuzo Kanashiki (Tokyo: Shinchosha, 2005).

[4] Rikke Schubart, “Eastwood and the Enemy” [in:] Rikke Schubart & Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 174.

[5] Leo Braudy, “Flags of Our Fathers / Letters of Iwo Jima”, Film Quarterly; Summer 2007; 60, 4; p. 17.

[6] Aaron Gerow, “From ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ to ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’: Clint Eastwood’s Balancing of Japanese and American Perspective”, online: http://apjjf.org/-Aaron-Gerow/2290/article.html (accesed 26 July, 2016).

[7] See Sara Anson Vaux, The Ethical Vision of Clint Eastwood (Grand Rapids, Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012), p. 157.

[8] The Poles consider the Russians to be the threatening barbarians, as „Asians” who want to conquer Poland and the whole Europe, as the rude, backward, conceited and always dead-drunk nationalists, poor and with no future before them. Meanwhile, the Serbs perceive Russians as the Slav brothers and the close friends.

[9] Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden, „General Introduction: What is Transnational Cinema? [in:] Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden (eds.), Transnational Cinema. The Film Reader (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), s. 1.

[10] Freda Freiberg, „China Nights (Japan, 1940): The Sustaining Romance” [in:] John Whiteclay Chambers II, David Culbert (eds.), World War II, Film, and History (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 34.

[11] Peter B. High, The Imperial Screen. Japanese Film Culture in the Fifteen Years’ War, 1931-1945 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), s. 421.

[12] Ikui Eikoh, „’Letters from Iwo Jima’: Japanese Perspectives”, Japan Focus, 2, online: http://www.japanfocus.org/-Ikui-Eikoh/2417 (accessed 28 July, 2016).

[13] Ibidem.

[14] Lars-Martin Sorensen, “East of Eastwood. Iwo Jima and the Japanese Context” [in:] Rikke Schubart & Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 210.

[15] Rikke Schubart, “Eastwood and the Enemy” [in:] Rikke Schubart & Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 189.

[16] Ian Buruma, “Eastwood War: The Battle of Iwo Jima”, Japan Focus, 5, online: http://www.apjjf.org/-Ian-Buruma/2360/article.html (accesed 28 July, 2016).

[17] Mikkel Bruun Zangenberg, „Humanism versus Patriotism? Eastwood Trapped in the Bi-Polar Logic of Warfare” [in:] Rikke Schubart & Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 220.

[18] Leo Braudy, “Flags of Our Fathers / Letters of Iwo Jima”, Film Quarterly; Summer 2007; 60, 4; p. 21.

[19] Rikke Schubart, “Eastwood and the Enemy” [in:] Rikke Schubart & Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 182.

[20] Ibidem, p. 184.

[21] Ibidem, p. 185.

[22] Ibidem, p. 185.

[23] Ian Buruma, “Eastwood War: The Battle of Iwo Jima”, Japan Focus.

[24] Rikke Schubart, “Eastwood and the Enemy” [in:] Rikke Schubart & Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 189.

[25] Tadamichi Kuribayashi, online: http://www.wikiwand.com/en/Tadamichi_Kuribayashi (accesed 4 August, 2016).

[26] Robert S. Burrell, The Ghost of Iwo Jima (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2006), p. 47.

[27] Tadamichi Kuribayashi, online: http://ww2db.com/person_bio.php?person_id=21 (accesed 5 September 2016).

[28] Lars-Martin Sorensen, “East of Eastwood. Iwo Jima and the Japanese Context” [in:] Rikke Schubart &^ Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 197.

[29] Aaron Gerow, From ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ to ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’: Clint Eastwood’s Balancing of Japanese and American Perspective.

[30] Robert Burgoyne, “Suicide in ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’” [in:] Rikke Schubart & Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 232.

[31] Ibidem, p. 232.

[32] The words credited to Elazar ben Yair, leader of Zealots defending the Jewish stronghold of Masada agains Roman army in 73. See: Flavius Josephus, The Works of Flavius Josephus, the Learned and Authentic Jewish Historian, translated by William Whiston, A.M., vol. II (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1845), s. 490.

[33] Robert Burgoyne, “Suicide in ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’” [in:] Rikke Schubart &^ Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 232.

[34] Ibidem, p. 234.

[35] Wang Xiaofei, “Movies Without Mercy: Race, War, and Images of Japanese People in American Films, 1942-1945”, Journal of Amrican – East Asian Relations 18 (2011), p. 18-19.

[36] Kathryn Kane, Vision of War: Hollywood Combat Films of World War II (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1982), p. 56.

[37] Wang Xiaofei, Movies Without Mercy: Race, War, and Images of Japanese People in American Films, 1942-1945, “Journal of Amrican – East Asian Relations” 18 (2011), p. 22.

[38] Ian Buruma, “Eastwood War: The Battle of Iwo Jima”, Japan Focus, 5, online: http://www.apjjf.org/-Ian-Buruma/2360/article.html (accesed 28 July, 2016).

[39]. Leo Braudy, “Flags of Our Fathers / Letters of Iwo Jima”, p. 17.

[40] Stephen Prince (ed.), Screening violence (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000), pp. 27-28.

[41] Michael Paris, “‘What Happened was Wrong!: “Come See the Paradise’ and the Japanese-American Experience in the Second World War” [in:] Michael Paris (ed.), Repicturing the Second World War: Representations in Film and Television (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 113.

[42] Ibidem, s. 113.

[43] David H. Budd, Culture Meets Culture in the Movies: An Analysis East, West, North and South, with Filmohraphies (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2002), p. 52.

[44] Mikkel Bruun Zangenberg, „Humanism versus Patriotism? Eastwood Trapped in the Bi-Polar Logic of Warfare” [in:] Rikke Schubart & Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 220.

[45] Ibidem, p. 220.

Łukasz A. Plesnar is a Professor of Film Studies and holds the Chair of Film History at Jagiellonian University (the Institute of Audiovisual Arts). His main research interests, besides general film history, include silent cinema, classical American cinema, theory and history of film genres (particularly Western), as well as theory of film and American culture. He is the author of eleven books and almost one hundred other publications (in Polish, English, French, and Spanish). His books focus on ontology of film, semiotics of film, history of American cinema, Western and combat films, and the image of frontier in American literature.

He is currently completing a new book on Clint Eastwood as a film director.


Depictions of Post-9/11 South Asian Racial Profiling in Indian Cinema

Kaja Łuczynska

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 78-88.

Kaja Łuczynska

Jagiellonian University


Depictions of Post-9/11 South Asian Racial Profiling in Indian Cinema


Events that took place in USA on 11th September 2001 had a profound influence on the American culture, politics and society. It is very often said, that “nothing will be the same after 9/11” and in my article I would like to examine one of many 9/11 consequences, which is a shift in the image of many races and ethnicities. The attacks caused not only a great shift in homeland security, which resulted in many civil right violations, but also a return of large-scale racial profiling. The victims of such practices, apart from Arabs and people of Arabic descent, were also South Asians. In their cases “racial profiling” has become more of a “color profiling” (according to J.Angelo Corlett) which resulted in a series of hate crimes (such as the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi) and other forms of hostility. There are many Indian films concerning the problem briefly described above, but in my article I will focus on three of them: New York (2009, Kabir Khan), My Name Is Khan (2010, Karan Johar) and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012, Mira Nair). All of them portray the issue of post-9/11 racial profiling of South Asians, but each focuses on a different aspect of the subject.

Key words: 9/11, USA, South Asians, racial profiling, Indian cinema, Bollywood


 The events that took place in the United States on 11th September 2001 had a profound influence on American culture, politics, and society. It is very often said that nothing will be the same after 9/11 and this is not an overstatement. In this paper, I would examine one of the many consequences of 9/11, which is the return of large-scale racial profiling and a significant shift in the image of South Asians living in the U.S. Until the tragic events of 2001, the phenomenon of racial profiling applied mostly to African-Americans and Mexicans, who were stereotypically considered “a dangerous element” that was prone to violence and criminality. However, after 9/11 the biggest fear was raised by people of Arabic descent and all those who happen to have “Arabic” (in the broadest and most common meaning of the word) features. The problem of racial profiling of American South Asians was depicted many times in films, especially those made in India or by Indian directors. Of the plethora of titles, I have chosen three that will establish a base for my study: New York (2009, Kabir Khan), My Name Is Khan (2010, Karan Johar), and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012, Mira Nair). All of them portray the issue of post-9/11 racial profiling, but each of them focuses on a different aspect.

South Asian Americans

Firstly, it is necessary to explain the term “South Asians” in the title of this paper. The definition below comes from a brochure entitled “In Our Own Words” as a response to the problem of post 9-11 racial profiling by organizations such as: New York City Profiling Collaborative; DRUM – Desis Rising Up and Moving; The Sikh Coalition; United Sikhs; South Asian Youth Action (SAYA!); Coney Island Avenue Project; Council of People’s Organization; and above all SAALT (South Asian Americans Leading Together). The handbook states, “The South Asian community comprises individuals who trace their ancestry to Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka; in addition, members of Afghan and Pastun communities”.[1]

In time, similarly to other ethnic groups, South Asian immigrants have become important members of American society and worked, studied, and lived in the United States. Many of them felt like fully-fledged U.S. citizens, especially the young generations, which identified themselves both as Americans and South Asians (they had a kind of “flexible citizenship”). However, their perceptions changed in the days after 9/11, which were filled with intolerance, hatred, and prejudice. Subsequently, “flexible citizenship can be a tenuous, or even potentially dangerous strategy for Muslim immigrant youth, for transnational ties and shifting national allegiances are precisely what have come under scrutiny for Muslim Americans by the state in the era of the Patriot Act”[2], writes Sunaina Maira in her study of South Asian Muslim Youth in Post-9/11 America.

American society has essentially been divided into two groups: allies and enemies. Previous modern and progressive views on immigrants’ nationalities have ceased to exist and the world has once again become black and white. This might seem like a simplification, as it is well known that attitudes to immigrants in the US have always been paradoxical.

America is built on immigration, needs immigration, and is at the same time massively suspicious of strangers, in a perfect incarnation of what Derrida calls “hospitality”. There is always a delicate balance of hostility and hospitality in acts of welcome”. Therefore, it can be said, “the stranger-foreigner is always both desired and rejected.[3]

However, the great shift mentioned above was obvious for most Americans, and especially those whose lives totally changed after the attacks on WTC. A great description of this change is provided by the already quoted publication “In Our Own Words”:

In the eyes of the world, New York City serves as the quintessential emblem of the vibrant diversity within the United States and the gateway to the American Dream. Amid the city’s mosaic of residents – including African Americans, Asians, Europeans, Latinos, Middle Easterners, and those from the Caribbean – South Asians have long established an indelible presence in the city. Yet, after the devastating attacks of September 11th, 2001 on the World Trade Center, Muslims and anyone perceived to be Muslim became the public enemy literally overnight. New York City soon shifted to become one of the epicentres of systemic racial and religious profiling against these communities. (…) Since September 11th, South Asian community members continue to encounter government scrutiny based on their race, national origin, and religion in various arenas.[4]

Racial Profiling

Everyday impediments, harmful racial profiling, and even acts of violence that touched South Asian Americans after 9/11 were not directly and unambiguously sanctioned, or inspired by law. Even the infamous Patriot Act, an Act of Congress that was signed into law by President George W. Bush on October 26, 2001 whose full title was “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001”, consisted of many notations on tolerance and peaceful coexistence with Muslim Americans:

Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, and Americans from South Asia play a vital role in our Nation and are entitled to nothing less than the full rights of every American. The acts of violence that have been taken against Arab and Muslim Americans since the September 11, 2001, attacks against the United States should be and are condemned by all Americans who value freedom. The concept of individual responsibility for wrongdoing is sacrosanct in American society, and applies equally to all religious, racial, and ethnic groups. When American citizens commit acts of violence against those who are, or are perceived to be, of Arab or Muslim descent, they should be punished to the full extent of the law. Muslim Americans have become so fearful of harassment that many Muslim women are changing the way they dress to avoid becoming targets. Many Arab Americans and Muslim Americans have acted heroically during the attacks on the United States, including Mohammed Salman Hamdani, a 23-year-old New Yorker of Pakistani descent, who is believed to have gone to the World Trade Center to offer rescue assistance and is now missing.[5]

The same kind of thought was expressed many times by the President George W. Bush, Jr., who said in the Address to the Joint Session of Congress, delivered on 20 September 2001:

I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your faith. It is practiced freely by many millions of Americans and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists, and every government that supports them. [6]

Unfortunately, appeasing statements, such as this, which were ineffectual preventive measures against the outburst of violence towards Muslim Americans, did not sound convincing enough for many Americans, who desired palpable revenge. Apparently, it did not sound plausible for the government itself. For example in June 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced a “Special Registration” requirement that all males from a list of Arab and Muslim countries report to the government to be registered and fingerprinted. According to the May 2011 statement by the American Civil Liberties Union, the program has never led to a single terrorism-related conviction despite tens of thousands of people forced to register. [7]

This is why, after 9/11 the security practice known as “racial profiling” began on a large, almost incomparable scale, which is, basically (according to the definition provided by Mathias Risse and Richard Zeckhauser): “any police-indicated action that relies on the race, ethnicity, or national origin and not merely on the behaviour of the individual”.[8] It might be also said that racial profiling entails racist stereotyping of those targeted[9], but that actually is not a general rule: sometimes it is just and based on statistics. For example, if the police is looking for members of a certain gang which is known to include only young Mexicans, that is the group which naturally should be targeted first in the investigation. [10]

However, the current cases of intolerance and prejudice that can be observed all around the U.S. are (in the majority) not just; moreover, according to J. Angelo Corlett, they are not really racial profiling, but rather colour profiling.[11] “So strictly speaking, not only is racial profiling not taking place in law enforcement, it ought not to, that is, so long as it is conceived in popular terms. What is really happening is colour (and/or other morphological) profiling, which is believed erroneously by many to indicate the “race” of a suspect. However, at best it is a prima facie indicator of race. At worst, it is rather misleading”.[12]

Corlett draws the attention to a very important issue. Not many people are experts at indicating someone’s race and ethnicity and what is more, even the concept of “race” itself is very problematic.[13] This is why it also enfolded people of South Asian descent, who were frequently taken as Arabs. An excellent (and at the same time gruesome) example of such mistakes was the treatment of Sikhs after 9/11, who were taken for Muslims (or even Islamic terrorists) because of their traditional headgear dastaar, which is a certain kind of turban covering their uncut hair (kesh).

The targets of their post-September 11 bias incidents have included anyone who is perceived to be Arab or Muslim. Thus, non-Arabs such as Indians, Pakistanis, and other South Asians have been affected, as have non-Muslims such as Indian Sikhs and Hindus and Arab Christians. Sikh men in particular, readily identifiable by their turbans and long beards, have borne a disproportionate burst of the violence (…).[14]

The most well-known case was the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh-American gas station owner from Arizona, which was officially acknowledged as the first of several cases across the United States that were supposed acts of retaliation for the 9/11 attacks. Balbir was murdered by 42-year-old mechanic Frank Silva Roque, who mistook him for an Arab American. “In a series of racist statements that began when the World Trade Centre collapsed, Roque announced his murderous plans and told a co-worker that he had been treated rudely at a gasoline station on University Drive by «a towel-head or a rag-head»” [15]

Racial profiling has grown to an impressive scale. The total number of reported hate crime incidents in the US decreased by over 18 percent between 2000 and 2009, but during the same period, the percentage of hate crime incidents directed towards Muslims increased by over 500 percent. The number of hate crimes against Muslims has been increasing more slowly since 2010.[16] This kind of crime also involves another, paradoxical feature: egalitarianism. It affects both affluent and poor members of society, so it does not matter if somebody is a well-educated doctor, IT specialist, shopkeeper, or unemployed. The only thing that counts is the skin colour and other aspects of appearance.[17]

American South Asian themselves listed expressions of racial profiling directed towards them:

  • South Asians are frequently questioned about their faith or national origin by government officials.
  • South Asians are often questioned by government officials about their immigration status, which is used as leverage to pressure individuals to inform on fellow community members.
  • South Asians subjected to profiling often feel being viewed as “suspects” by the general public, within their community, and even within their families
  • South Asians encounter profiling so routinely that many have altered their behaviour in an attempt to avoid additional scrutiny.
  • South Asians report that profiling has caused them to lose faith in the government’s ability to protect them in times of need.[18]

Looking for historical references to the scale of racial profiling after 9/11, it is necessary to move back to the times of Second World War, when a similar mechanism was implemented towards Japanese Americans. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the FBI arrested more than 2,000 Japanese, suspecting them of links to the attackers. On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which announced immediate evacuation of all Japanese Americans from the West Coast (many believed that Japan might soon strike there) to internment camps. 110,000 Japanese Americans (2/3 of whom were American citizens) were forced to move and as a consequence suffered great hardships and had to hurriedly sell their homes or businesses and relocate to crowded camps. Although there were more German, and Italian Americans living in the country than Japanese Americans, there was less hostility displayed towards them.[19]

Indian Cinema on 9/11 Racial Profiling

“The Western view of mainstream Bollywood is one-dimensional”,[20] writes Burhan Wazir in his article “Bollywood for Grown-ups”. Extremely differentiated Indian cinema is mostly perceived through masala-movies, produced in Mumbai, but it is a harmful simplification. Firstly, it is important to acknowledge that:

The Bombay [Mumbai is official city’s name since 1995] industry actually produces about 150-200 films a year. Feature films are produced in approximately 20 languages in India and there are multiple film industries whose total output makes India the largest film-producing country in the world. The cities of Madras and Hyderabad are homes to the Tamil and Telugu language film industries which are equally, or more prolific that the Bombay industry in terms of the number of films made per year[21].

 Secondly, masala movies, especially recently, are not the only kind of films produced in India, and also look different from what the audience was used to, with titles such as Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001, Karan Johar). The term masala movie:

Alludes to the whole range of genres and emotions that one can expect to find in a Bollywood film. It is widely accepted that the spices used release different flavours, which find their parallel in what Sanskrit scholars call Rasas or «feelings». (…) The popular Hindi film is a unique blend of different moods and itself composes a specific genre because its constitution is so fixed. From the story line to the direction, these films are entirely grounded in melodrama. (…) The characters are strong stereotypes. These films are pure escapist material, blurring out the hard-knock reality of everyday life and what they do best is to provoke a huge emotional participation from the masses, who loudly manifest their reactions.”[22]

However, contemporary Indian cinema does not entirely look the way it is commonly perceived. Many movies deal with serious political or social issues, and draw public attention to previously ignored matters. “Hindi cinema can be political about the personal. A film that explores homosexuality or religious intermarriage will have an impact. However, it will always be done through the melodramatic form of the film, which should not detract from the argument, as entertainment is the way to reach large audiences”, says Rachel Dwyer, professor of Indian cultures and cinema at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.[23] These issues can be immigration (Swades, 2004, Ashutosh Gowariker), gender-based discrimination (Chak De India, 2007, Shimit Amin), social class (English Vinglish, 2012, Gauri Shinde), teenage pregnancies (Teree Sang, 2009, Satish Kaushik), or even the problem of racial profiling after 9/11, broadly described above.

From many Indian films regarding the issue of racial profiling after 9/11, I have chosen three that depict the problem in an exceptionally interesting way. The first was directed by widely acclaimed Indian female film director Mira Nair, known for Salaam Bombay! (1988), Monsoon Wedding (2001), and Vanity Fair (2004). One of her recent films, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012), tells the story of a young Pakistani man who moves to USA and works in a finance company. Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed) is a skilled professional who is valued by his supervisors and has a great career ahead, but unfortunately, after 9/11 his life changes completely. As a Pakistani, he is perceived as a danger for American homeland security and this attitude is expressed many times in the film. Changez is subjected to humiliating personal inspection at airports, is called “Osama” by random people on the street, and eventually comes to the upsetting conclusion that “I didn’t have to pick a side after 9/11. It was picked for me”. Surprisingly, in opposition to the domineering tendency, the protagonist does not try to hastily westernize himself and fit into American society after what happened. He grows a traditional beard, resigns from work, and goes back to Pakistan, where he starts to work at Lahore University. Until the very last scenes of the film, the viewer does not know whether Changez is just a random victim of racial profiling or a real, dangerous fundamentalist who was recruited by terrorists. Notwithstanding, Mira Nair is convinced that Changez deserves to be heard, and expresses that by introducing the character of journalist Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber), whose basic task is to listen to the main hero’s story.

Another film that depicts the problem of post-9/11 racial profiling is Kabir Khan’s New York, a seemingly typical Bollywood masala-movie, but with a very contemporary and bitter touch. Again (similarly to The Reluctant Fundamentalist), the narrative structure of the film is in the form of a retrospective. Young Indian Omar (Neil Nitin Mukesh) is arrested by an FBI agent Roshan (Irrfan Khan) for illegal possession of firearms. Soon it is unveiled that the detention was just a provocation, done in order to force Omar to inform on his best friend Sameer (John Abraham), who is suspected of terrorist activity. After a long period of persuasion, harassment, and blackmail, Omar finally agrees to report on Sameer, but only in order to prove his innocence. Unfortunately, his friend is not entirely blameless and is, in fact, preparing a large-scale terrorist attack. It may seem impossible and absurd, but in the film Sameer’s motivation is very reliably explained and related to another social problem. At some point he says, “Everything changed after 9/11, people stared at me on the street like I was a terrorist”, which is interesting, because by this point of the plot, Sameer was just a regular young American of Indian descent who was trying to start his own life with a woman he loved (Katrina Kaif). However, things changed after an illegal and accidental arrest, as a result of which Sameer landed in prison, which looked very much like Guantanamo Bay. This innocent film character was subjected to humiliation and torture such as sleep deprivation, water boarding, and music torture. In addition, that was exactly where and when Sameer met for the first time a real terrorist who, through the cell bars, invited him to join a terrorist sleeper cell in New York. After release, broken and mentally changed, Sameer decided that if he is treated a terrorist, he might as well become one and take revenge on the United States, which had treated him so horribly. This interesting plot twist suggests that to some degree it is the U.S. that is guilty in the “War on Terror”.

The third title, My Name is Khan, is definitely the most well-known, also because of the appearance of superstar Shah Rukh Khan in the main role of Rizwan Khan, an Indian immigrant suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome. After the death of his mother, Rizwan—unable to live by himself—moves to the USA to live with his brother Zakir, a successful businessman who sells beauty products. While working for Zakir, the protagonist meets a charming single mother Mandira (Kajol), and after some time marries her and adopts her son Sameer (Arjan Aujla). Their happy life is disrupted by the 9/11 attacks, which once again change their lives totally. At some point Rizwan says, “In the western world, history is marked simply by BC and AD. Now however, there is a third distinction: 9/11”. To make matters worse, young Sameer is killed due to racial hatred exhibited by his school colleagues. The happy marriage of Mandira and Rizwan is over, but the husband decides to repair the relationship by visiting the president of United States and telling him in person: “My name is Khan and I’m not a terrorist”. Rizwan starts to follow George W. Bush Jr. and seeks to meet him. Unfortunately, he is taken for a terrorist, arrested, and put in a prison, in which he experiences violence and torture. Even his condition—essentially a mild form of autism—does not help him to be released. Finally—thanks to a crew of student filmmakers—Rizwan is freed and gains the opportunity to meet the president. However, he meets not the distant and cold George W. Bush, but the warm and friendly Barrack Obama, who treats Rizwan as a hero and hails him as an example of human endurance and determination.


Although the films mentioned above are primarily a form of entertainment (especially New York, which is rich in songs and romance, and My Name Is Khan, brimming with great Indian movie stars), they also focus on unpopular and complicated issues related to the life conditions of South Asians after 9/11. They do it in a surprisingly comprehensive and intelligent way, trying to depict different angles of the problem simultaneously. At the same time, they also do not revert to simplifications and one-dimensional treatment of their heroes. They are subordinated to one, maybe a little naïve and idealistic rule: everyone deserves to be heard no matter what their descent, background, religion, or even the crimes they have committed.

However, the problem is that this idea is complementary to the mistakes committed by the USA itself, prior to the tragic events of 9/11. They both represent the same level of naivety and idealism that cannot possibly exist in the real world. The false delusion of a tolerant global village in which all people live happily, are proud of their decent, and can reunite in a world without borders, had fallen alongside the two towers of the World Trade Center. The world was once again reminded that the idea of modern, secularized state is impossible to achieve.

Nonetheless, it is important to emphasize that some issues highlighted by films such as New York, My Name Is Khan, and The Reluctant Fundamentalist are important and should be kept in mind. The focal point of all the movies is not only post-9/11 racial profiling, but also its consequences, such as unlawful and violent treatment of South Asians, who were arrested without any explicit charges and without respect to their human rights. This reflects reality, in which there have been many cases of people detained for several years without charges, legal counsel, or representation. After 9/11, the classic rule of presumption of innocence changed to treating suspects as guilty until proven innocent. This undermined the very foundation of law. This definitely should not be a starting point for rebuilding a country after an enormous tragedy such as 9/11.


American Rhetoric, http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/gwbush911jointsessionspeech.htm, date accessed 19 August 2016.

Ahmad Munner, “Homeland Insecurities: Racial Violence the Day After September 11”, Race/ Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts, vol. 4, no. 3 (2011).

Chakraborty Chandrima, “Subaltern Studies, Bollywood and Lagaan”, Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 38, no. 19 (2003).

Corlett J. Angelo, “Profiling Color”, The  Journal of Ethincs, vol. 15, no. 1 (2011).

Ganti Tejaswini, Bollywood. A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema (New York: Ruthledge) (2004).

Giese James R., Downey Matthew T., Mazón Mauricio (ed) The American Century: A History of the United States in Modern Times, (Cincinnati: West Educational Publishing) (1999).

In Our Own Words, http://www.issuelab.org/resource/in_our_own_words_narratives_of_south_asian_new_yorkers_affected_by_racial_and_religious_profiling , date accessed 19 August 2016.

Maira Sunaina, “Flexible Citizenship / Flexible Empire: South Asian Muslim Youth in Post-9/11 America”, American Quarterly, vol. 60, no. 3, 2006.

Ryberg Jesper, “The Ethics of Racial Profiling: Introduction”, The Journal of Ethics, vol. 15, no. 1/2 (2011).

Simpson David, “After 9/11: The Fate of Strangers”, Americastudien / American Studies, vol. 57, no. 2 (2012).

Swept Up in a Dragnet, Hundreds Sit in Custody and Ask, ‘Why?’, http://www.nytimes.com/2001/11/25/national/swept-up-in-a-dragnet-hundreds-sit-in-custody-and-ask-why.html, date accessed 22 August 2016.

Watson Institute, http://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/costs/social/rights/profiling, date accessed 19 August 2016.

Wazir Burhan, “Bollywood for Grown-ups”, The World Today, vol. 68, no. 6 (2012).

Rediff: India Abroad, http://www.rediff.com/us/2003/sep/03sodhi.htm, date accessed 19 August 2016.


 New York (2009, Kabir Khan)

My Name is Khan (2010, Karan Johar)

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012, Mira Nair)

Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001, Karan Johar)

Swades (2004, Ashutosh Gowariker)

Chak De India (2007, Shimit Amin)

English Vinglish (2012, Gauri Shinde)

Teree Sang (2009, Satish Kaushik)

Salaam Bombay! (1988, Mira Nair)

Monsoon Wedding (2001, Mira Nair)

Vanity Fair (2004, Mira Nair)


[1] In Our Own Words, http://www.issuelab.org/resource/in_our_own_words_narratives_of_south_asian_new_yorkers_affected_by_racial_and_religious_profiling, date accessed 19 August 2016.

[2] Sunaina Maira, “Flexible Citizenship / Flexible Empire: South Asian Muslim Youth in Post-9/11 America”, American Quarterly 60:3 (2006), p. 712.

[3] David Simpson, “After 9/11: The Fate of Strangers”, Americastudien / American Studies 57:2 (2012), p. 201.

[4] In Our Own Words, http://www.issuelab.org/resource/in_our_own_words_narratives_of_south_asian_new_yorkers_affected_by_racial_and_religious_profiling, date accessed 19 August 2016.

[5] The USA PATRIOT Act, https://www.justice.gov/archive/ll/what_is_the_patriot_act.pdf, date accessed 19 August 2016.

[6] American Rhetoric, http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/gwbush911jointsessionspeech.htm, date accessed 19 August 2016.

[7] Watson Institute, http://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/costs/social/rights/profiling, date accessed 19 August 2016.

[8] J. Angelo Corlett, “Profiling Color”, The Journal of Ethincs 15:1 (2011), p. 25.

[9] J. Angelo Corlett, p. 25.

[10] J. Angelo Corlett, p. 21.

[11] J. Angelo Corlett, p. 25.

[12] J. Angelo Corlett.

[13] J. Angelo Corlett, p. 26.

[14] Ahmad Munner, “Homeland Insecurities: Racial Violence the Day after September 11”, Race/ Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts 4:3 (2011), p. 341.

[15] Rediff: India Abroad, http://www.rediff.com/us/2003/sep/03sodhi.htm, date accessed 19 August 2016.

[16] Watson Institute.

[17] Ahmad Munner, p. 344.

[18] In Our Own Words.

[19] James R. Giese, Matthew T. Downey, Mauricio Mazón (ed), The American Century: A History of the United States in Modern Times (Cincinnati: West Educational Publishing) (1999), p. 527.

[20] Burhan Wazir, “Bollywood for Grown-ups”, The World Today 68: 6 (2012), p. 47.

[21] Tejaswini Ganti, Bollywood. A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema (New York: Ruthledge) (2004), p. 3.

[22] The “Masala” Film Recipe, http://www.postcolonialweb.org/pakistan/literature/rushdie/takhar20.html, date accessed 19 August 2016.

[23] Burhan Wazir, p. 47.

Kaja Łuczyńska – graduated Film Studies (BA, MA), American Studies (BA), and is now a PhD candidate at Jagiellonian University. Currently working on a dissertation about post-9/11 American cinema and its connections to the interdisciplinary concept of loss. Her articles have been published in magazines such as “Ekrany”, “Ha!art” and “Fragile”. She works also as a film educator and since 2011 has written a blog, „Orbitowanie bez cukru”.

Postcolonial adaptations of classic British literature

Bartłomiej Nowak

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 79-89.

Bartłomiej Nowak


Postcolonial adaptations of classic British literature



The article is an attempt of re-reading selected film adaptations of the classic British literature. The author confronts them with the images of history, British culture and ‘Others’ that are present in the literary works on which they are based. Is the gaze of the ‘center’ looking at the ‘margins’ present in the books transgressed in the movies or do the movies repeat the historical views of the authors and works unchanged despite different social and political context of the contemporary times?

For example, does Bride & Prejudice (2004), directed by Gurinder Chadha, combining the plot of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice with the form of the Bollywood cinema, reinterpret the text of the novel and let the viewer „read” it through the eyes of the postcolonial subject? How are the themes of slavery and postcolonialism treated in Derek Jarman’s and Julie Taymor’s movie adaptations of Shakespeare’s The Tempest? Is David Lean’s A Passage to India progressive or conservative in its portrayal of the Raj?

The author points to the works of postcolonial theoreticians (such as Frantz Fanon, Edward W. Said), interpretations of the movies and analysis of the literary works on which they are based. He tries to answer the question: is the spirit of the British colonial and imperial history still present in the film culture that is product of the changing (but neocolonial) world? Can this question be answered unambiguously?

Key words: postcolonialism, adaptations, British literature, rewriting history, interpretation

In this short article, I try to analyse a few film adaptations of classic British literature and compare the images of ‘Others’ they contain with those present in the texts on which they are based. I focus on four films: A Passage to India (1984, dir. David Lean), Bride & Prejudice (2004, dir. Gurinder Chadha), and two adaptations of The Tempest (1979, dir. Derek Jarman and 2010, dir. Julie Taymor). I try to answer the question: is the spirit of British colonial and imperial history still present in film culture that is a product of the changing (but neo-colonial) world?

Let me begin with Bride & Prejudice (2004), directed by Gurinder Chadha, which combines the plot of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice with the form of Bollywood cinema. Does this movie reinterpret the text of the novel and let the viewer “read” it through the eyes of the postcolonial subject?

Bride & Prejudice was made more than two decades after the beginning of British cinema’s ‘heritage cinema’ movement (which started with Chariots of Fire, 1981, dir. Hugh Hudson). It depicted the British Empire and the class society of the nineteenth or twentieth century and was frequently accused of being morally and socially conservative and the product of Thatcherism and its politics. Sometimes considered as a smaller part of the movement (and sometimes as a parallel phenomenon), the so-called Raj Revival cinema, which depicted the times of the British rule in India, was described by the British scholar, Andrew Higson, in the appropriately titled text Re-presenting the National Past: Nostalgia and Pastiche in the Heritage Film, in the following manner:

the imperialist fantasies of national identity found in the cycle of films and television programmes about the Raj, such as A Passage to India and The Jewel in the Crown, […] can be seen as conservative responses to a collective, post-imperialist anxiety. Retreating from the social, political, and economic crises of the present, they strive to recapture an image of national identity as pure, untainted, complete and in place. Yet like so many nostalgic narratives, they return to a moment of stability and tranquillity in the social order as they themselves chart the process of decay, the fall from this utopian national ideal […][1].

In contrast to this nostalgic cinema of the past, the socially aware movies of the decade, such as Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987), depicted the times of Margaret Thatcher and a society of the mixed ethnic groups and sexual orientations. Heritage cinema did not avoid topics such as homosexual orientation (Maurice, 1987, dir. James Ivory; Another Country, 1984, dir. Marek Kanievska), or the situation of women in patriarchal society (A Room with a View, 1985, dir. James Ivory); however, it treated them (at least in the eyes of some scholars) in a conservative manner.

However, contemporary movies did not forget about the changes in the national structure of modern society and this was probably the biggest difference between them and heritage cinema, which usually showed the British nation as homogenous, white, and divided only by class and gender (despite the fact that black people were part of British society as early as the 16th century[2]). The movies and TV series of the Raj Revival movement obviously showed people of colour, but not usually as the main protagonists of their own history. Salman Rushdie in the essay Outside the Whale cites the words of David Lean, director of the movie A Passage to India (1984), which was adapted from the novel written by E. M. Forster in 1924 (some twenty-three years before India gained independence from the British Empire):

 Forster was a bit anti-English, anti-Raj and so on. I suppose it’s a tricky thing to say, but I’m not so much. I intend to keep the balance more. I don’t believe all the English were a lot of idiots. Forster rather made them so. He came down hard against them. […] As for Aziz [the Muslim protagonist of the novel], there’s a hell of a lot of Indian in him. They’re marvellous people but maddening sometimes, you know…. He’s a goose.[3]

Such a statement shows that the Raj Revival movement might be seen as “a revisionist enterprise”[4]: an attempt to change history, conceal its atrocities, and show the empire as a still valuable model for the national and social future of Great Britain.

Gurinder Chadha’s movie was made more than a decade after the end of Margaret Thatcher’s rule as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Jane Austen was not popular with directors in the 1980s, but was rediscovered in the next decade when at least few movies based on her works were made. Her popularity did not end with the beginning of the 21st century but Chadha’s movie differed in more than one way from most of Austen’s adaptations. She changed the setting from 19th century Britain to modern Britain, India, and the United States. Elizabeth Bennet, the main protagonist of the novel, is now Lalita Bakshi and Mr. Darcy’s citizenship was changed to American. If the change of the name of the main heroine is justified mainly by the new setting of the story (India), the fact that Darcy is now a citizen of the United States is the result of the new world order in which the United Kingdom was replaced by the USA in the role of the main world power. It is even said in the movie when Lalita complains about Darcy’s plans to build a new hotel in India for tourists from the West: “I thought we got rid of imperialists like you!” To his words “I’m not British. I’m American” she responds “Exactly”.

It might be said that Chadha clashes here with the nostalgic atmosphere of heritage cinema. By recontextualization of Austen’s text, changing of its time and place, it no longer has the power to evoke the past. At the same time, by using British text as a background for the modern story of cultural clashes, Chadha asks questions about the meaning of nation and cultural identity, about belonging to the national whole. Two of the main characters in the movie are British Asians. Their cultural identity is compared (rather unfavourably) with the identity of Indian people (Lalita and her family), still immersed in Indian tradition.

Lalita accuses Darcy and other rich people of the West of trying to turn India into a ‘theme park’, and Chadha’s movie can be seen as a response to this type of thinking about the Orient and Eastern cultures. There are scenes in the movie that show the colourful world of Indian culture that might appeal (by its ‘otherness’) to Western audiences; for example, scenes of singing and dancing reproducing the style of the Bollywood musical movies (or ‘masala’ movies as they are called), local garba dances and mujra, etc. However, these scenes do not function in the diegesis of the movie as the Oriental attraction, but are the proof that Indian culture still pulsates with life and is much more than a picturesque place from tourist guides of neo-colonial businessmen. The final scene shows Darcy riding on an elephant, clearly being taken by the beauty of India. This might be seen as a symbolic triumph of a postcolonial culture over a neo-colonial power, even if for Western audiences this could also be a phantasmatic neo-colonial dream of wild adventures in the Eastern milieu becoming reality.

When the movie protagonists travel to London, the capital city of the United Kingdom is shown in a sequence of short cuts of landmarks such as Big Ben, Tower Bridge, or the London Eye. Among them is one that is not as known abroad, but here it is treated as just another landmark building: the gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, the Sikh temple situated in Southall. Such editing punctuates the multiculturalism of British society and the British capital city.

Combining the new vision of postcolonial and multicultural Great Britain with one of India—still honouring its traditions and withstanding neo-colonial attempts of new imperial powers to constrain its freedom by global economic forces—Chadha shows a totally different reality than the one seen in heritage cinema and the movies of the Raj Revival movement, and the fact that her movie is set in contemporary times is not the only reason for this difference. As previously mentioned, heritage cinema avoided difficult topic of ethnic diversity and—in the movies of Raj Revival—recreated the image of empire and British rule in India, but turned away from the necessity of dealing with the racist and violent atrocities of the past. When historical movies of the 1980s did touch on the topic of the violent British rule—as was the case with Gandhi, 1982, dir. Richard Attenborough, which shows the massacre of 1919 in Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar, when many innocent people were killed after orders of the British general Reginald E. H. Dyer to shoot at a peaceful demonstration—this tragedy is shown as an aberration, as an error of one man, not the whole imperialistic system. “The moral mission of imperialism, while certainly discredited in some respects […], is also partly recuperated through an insistence on the essential rectitude of the British national character […]”, notices Bart Moore-Gilbert, author of a book analysing the works of Hanif Kureishi, a British writer, screenwriter and director who wrote screenplays for the aforementioned movies of Stephen Frears. “Whereas Attenborough clearly sentimentalises Gandhi, the more obviously ‘political’ Jinnah is an antipathetic figure, cold, rigid, aloof, and cunning, who compares badly not just with his rival but with many of the British officials.”[5] Such differences tend to show (by contrast) that the British nation did bring civilisation and gentlemanship to the allegedly uncivilised world of precolonial India.

Chadha’s movie contrasts such a presentation of history and India. It is worth noting that it is set in Amritsar, the city of the Amritsar massacre, and this tragedy had an impact on Chadha’s previous work: in her debut short movie I’m British but…, in which she presented the phenomenon of bhangra music and talked with young British Asian people about their national identity, this crime of the British empire is remembered. One of the female protagonists of this document says, I don’t think that one should forget one’s history. […] You can’t forget about events like the Amritsar massacre”. We also hear a song with the words: “Recall that it was these same foreigners | That took their rifles to us – | […] And every corner lies in witness. | O Jallianwala Bagh”. Maybe it is not a coincidence that a city that became a symbol of colonial criminality was chosen by Chadha as the setting for Bride and Prejudice, with all its critique of neo-colonialism.

Not all modern readings of British classic literature are as apparently postcolonial in their interpretations. A lot has been said and written about Shakespeare’s The Tempest and its antagonist Caliban. Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan in the book Shakespeare’s Caliban. A Cultural History notice:

In any event, scholars have wrangled over Caliban’s genesis since at least the middle of the eighteenth century. What did Shakespeare intend when he fashioned his puppy-headed monster? Was his paradigm the American Indian, for example, or an African perhaps, or Europe’s mythical wodewose? And if he had American Indians in mind, were they Montaigne’s noble savages or their ignoble opposites or a combination of both? Or, on the other hand, did the playwright shun obvious exemplars and contrive instead a creature unrelated to existing figures or types? The answer, of course, is elusive and endlessly debatable.[6]

This debate is caused by the constantly valid question of presentation: is Caliban a racist creation, based on all Western presuppositions about the alleged savageness of primitive cultures, or maybe we can say that his “rebellion against Prospero’s control—in whatever form it is represented—embodies issues fundamental to a culture’s ideology”[7]. In our context, “ideology” might mean Western faith in its superiority and supremacy over lands and people colonised through the ages.

There have been more adaptations of The Tempest, but I would like to centre on two of them: the one made in 1979 by Derek Jarman, and the other directed by Julie Taymor in 2010. Taymor did not give up the colonial and racial connotations of presenting Caliban as a black character. In the role she cast Djimon Hounsou, an actor born in Benin, Africa. It might be said that Taymor is not

bound by the post-colonial context of Tempest interpretation. She cast a black actor […] but then coated him with mud and fish scales, his own skin showing through only in a moon-like circle around his left eye. […] Whether improvised by the actor or at Taymor’s behest, her Caliban does a shockingly real impersonation of a gorilla. Taymor returned him to the status of the alien other, a primitive beast, not a human being. His only moment of human dignity is a silent face off with Prospera toward the end of the play in a scene invented by Taymor.[8]

Such moments of human dignity are completely absent from Jarman’s adaptation, but he decided to cast white blind actor Jack Birkett in the role and thus abandoned the more obvious colonial and postcolonial meanings that were important for Taymor more than three decades later. In the Polish monograph of Jarman, Małgorzata Radkiewicz claims that the way in which he is presented in Jarman’s version (of Birkett’s acting is grotesque and full of caricature) makes Prospero more delicate and subtle in comparison (despite his tyranny over Caliban and Ariel)[9]. For both Jarman and Taymor, gender issues are more important than racial ones; however, the subject of slavery, which could not disappear even from Jarman’s version, exists there behind themes of queerness and physicality. Taymor even changed the sex of Prospero and made him Prospera and Jarman spent a lot of time sexualising the sculptural body of David Meyer, who played Ferdinand. However, the theme of disobedience of the enslaved Caliban is still present in both versions and its meanings cannot be ignored despite the stereotypical savagery of both Calibans (and the whiteness of one from the earlier movie).

Frantz Fanon in his famous book Black Skin, White Masks, when writing about the image of blackness or otherness, notices:

The Tarzan stories, the sagas of twelve-year-old explorers, the adventures of Mickey Mouse, and all those “comic books” serve actually as a release for collective aggression. The magazines are put together by white men for little white men. This is the heart of the problem. In the Antilles – and there is every reason to think that the situation is the same in the other colonies – these same magazines are devoured by the local children. In the magazines the Wolf, the Devil, the Evil Spirit, the Bad Man, the Savage are always symbolized by Negroes or Indians; since there is always identification with the victor, the little Negro, quite as easily as the little white boy, becomes an explorer, an adventurer, a missionary “who faces the danger of being eaten by the wicked Negroes”.[10]

Even if these sentences are not as true nowadays as they were when these words were written (there are black comic book writers these days etc.), they show how the proper representation of otherness (or lack thereof) can affect human identity and self-respect. So how is the history of slavery treated in the adaptations of Shakespeare that are being discussed here? In addition, does this correspond with postcolonial thinking about the past or sustain the colonial ideology of race and the superiority of the Western civilisation?

Janja Ciglar-Žanić claims that: “Jarman […] locates the issues of colonization, subordination, and domination on the territory of the human body, and uses The Tempest to speak for those repressed Others, whose subordination and repression has been effected through the deployment of the dominant ideological construct of human sexuality.”[11] I suggest that this might be also the case with Taymor’s version. The unnatural cover of Caliban’s body, these “mud and fish scales”, as Alan A. Stone described them in the previously cited analysis, quite literally transfer the issue of subordination onto the surface of the human being: this cover hides the natural blackness of Hounsou’s body and forces viewers to see him through it. Part of Hounsou’s face is covered with white make-up. This might remind us of the title of Fanon’s book, already cited here: “black skin, white masks”. Despite the fact that Shakespeare’s text and previous interpretations of his play very often treat Caliban as a beast-like creature, I suggest that Taymor’s version is only seemingly similar to them. By casting a woman (Helen Mirren) in the role of Prospero and gay actor (Ben Whishaw) as Ariel, she showed that gender, body, and sexual issues are key to her interpretation of Shakespeare’s play (and this was also the case with her previous movie adaptation of the Bard of Avon’s play, Titus, 1999). “Mud and fish scales” might be read as a veil, a mask (of the whole body) and the wild, ‘primitive’ behaviour of Taymor’s Caliban as the physical, colonial stereotype that is just the normative cover behind which lies the truth about the Other which is as elusive as it is desired (this desire of knowledge and understanding of the Other is also found on Caliban’s body: Hounsou is strong, perfectly built, and indisputably attractive despite the unnatural skin cover). Obviously, this might be read as the stereotypical sexualisation of the bodies of black men, and the fact that Caliban’s sexual force is tamed now by a woman, Prospera, asks questions about the position of genders in the postmodern world: the real one and the one of Taymor’s adaptation. However, it would be deceptive to read Taymor’s movie through conservative glasses, forgetting about all the body issues that are at the same time stereotypical and transgressive. For example, questions about colonialism have to be asked differently when Prospera is no longer a figure of patriarchal power.

As Edward W. Said says in Culture and Imperialism about Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête, which re-writes Shakespeare’s The Tempest:

The core of Aimé Césaire’s Carribean Une Tempête is not ressentiment, but an affectionate contention with Shakespeare for the right to represent the Caribbean. That impulse to contend is part of a grander effort to discover the basis of an integral identity different from the formerly dependent, derivative one. Caliban, according to George Lamming, »is the excluded, that which is eternally below possibility… He is seen as an occasion, a state of existence which can be appropriated and exploited to the purposes of another’s own development.« If that is so, then Caliban must be shown to have a history that can be perceived on its own, as the result of Caliban’s own effort. One must, according to Lamming, »explode Prospero’s old myth« by christening »language afresh«; but this cannot occur »[…] until we make available to all the result of certain enterprises undertaken by men who are still regarded as the unfortunate descendants of languageless and deformed slaves«.[12]

Does a similar attempt to regain Caliban’s history for himself show up in Taymor’s or Jarman’s movie adaptations? I have tried to suggest here that gender and race issues are equivalents in both movies and that by emphasizing the enslaving nature of gender and sexual norms, Taymor and Jarman show the core of Western culture in which the Other (regardless of the reason of his Otherness: his gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion etc.) is tamed by norms that have to be broken, taken off like these “mud and fish scales”, to get to the true (but elusive) nature of his identity. Physicality always was one of the main reasons of intolerance and inequality: queerness and womanhood gain power in both movie adaptations of The Tempest and therefore it might be said that Jarman and Taymor contest patriarchalism: its history and its model of thinking about the Other and its place in the social structure of the past and the present. Non-whiteness is not forgotten, even if it is removed from the diegesis of Jarman’s movie. By casting a white actor as Caliban, Jarman forces viewers to ask themselves questions about power, norms, slavery etc. without connecting them directly with themes of race and ethnicity and therefore making them fundamental subjects of Western culture, significant in all kinds of contexts.

As part of this article, I would like to return to Lean’s A Passage to India. I have cited already Lean’s words about his approach to E. M. Forster’s novel. After all that has been written here about both adaptations of The Tempest, it is worth noting that both E. M. Forster’s novel and Lean’s movie can be interpreted as conservative or progressive, depending on the analysed aspect of the book or film. T. Muraleedharan in the text Imperial migrations: Reading the Raj cinema of the 1980s writes:

The most significant feature of the rewriting of history attempted by A Passage to India and Heat and Dust [another movie of the Raj Revival movement, 1983, dir. James Ivory] is the films’ neat reversal of the oppressor/victim dichotomy. Colonised India—a victim of political and economic oppression and exploitation—ends up appearing in these films as a mysterious and evil force that disrupts the middle-class domesticity of England.[13]

The most recognizable example of such a ‘reversal’ in A Passage to India is the scene in which one of the female protagonists of the movie, Mrs. Moore, during her journey to the fictitious Marabar Caves, loses breath when she becomes surrounded by a group of Indian inhabitants in one of the caves. Such an image suggests that she is a victim of the ‘aggressive, sensual […] physicality”[14] of the Indian people, while she actually is (as a British citizen) one of the imperialistic oppressors.

On the other hand, the gender politics of E. M. Forster’s text (and Lean’s movie) help to transgress the boundaries of the conservative colonial (or postcolonial) content of the book and film. Thus, once again gender politics might be key to a progressive re-reading and reinterpretation of the classic text. Leela Gandhi claims in her book Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction that no one understood the colonial ‘hostility’ between British women and Indian men better than E. M. Forster[15]. This hostility was related to the national identity of Indian men and the stereotypical model of Indian womanhood that was allegedly endangered by European women and their style of living. At the same time, British women were jealous that the bond between their partners and Indian men might be homoerotic[16]. Such suspicions were the results of the Western perception of Oriental sexuality and the stereotypes of the alleged effeminacy of Indian men. Such a bond also found a place in Forster’s novel. Forster was gay and the main protagonist of his novel, Fielding, befriends a local Muslim man, Aziz, and even if their friendship does not have a clear homosexual subtext, Fielding supports Aziz when he is accused of a rape attempt by an English girl, Adela Quested. Fielding does so despite the resistance of his compatriots.

This subtext (regardless of its meaning: whether it is clearly homosexual or not) allows criticism of the colonial discourse that simplifies sexual and gender differences between the East and the West. The mythical superiority of the colonizer (who allegedly should be heterosexual because his homosexuality would ruin the cultural construct of manhood) is questioned because it is revealed that the sexual and gender discourse models of the masculine West and the effeminate East are only constructs that can be (and very often are) transgressed.

This content of Forster’s novel stays intact in Lean’s movie and therefore it might be interesting to watch his film through pink glasses of queerness. I wanted to show that even texts that are usually read as conservative might contain content that can be seen as progressive and anticolonial and that one-sided reading of cultural texts is very often problematic.

To finish this article, let me rephrase the question from the first paragraph: do postcolonial movies reinterpret classic texts of the British literature? Unfortunately, as we have seen, this question cannot be answered in a simple way. However, I have tried to show in this article that modern attempts to read the classics differently, by theory or reinterpretation, let modern cinema cope with the colonial past in a way that contests the old thinking about norms, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality.



Bourne Stephen, “Secrets and lies. Black histories and British historical films” in British Historical Cinema, ed. Claire Monk, Amy Sargeant (London, New York: Routledge, 2002).

Chari Hema, “Colonial Fantasies and Postcolonial Identities: Elaboration of Postcolonial Masculinity and Homoerotic Desire” in Postcolonial, Queer, ed. John C. Hawley (Albany: State University of New York Press) (2001).

Ciglar-Žanić Janja, “Anti-colonial Tempest: Theory and Practice of Postmodernist Shakespearean Reinscriptions”, Studia Romanica et Anglica Zagrabiensia 42 (1997).

Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, (London: Pluto Press) (2008).

Higson Andrew, “Re-presenting the National Past: Nostalgia and Pastiche in the Heritage Film” in British Cinema and Thatcherism, ed. Lester D. Friedman (London, New York: Wallflower Press 2006).

Lamming George, The Pleasures of Exile, (London: Allison & Busby) (1984).

Moore-Gilbert Bart, Hanif Kureishi, (Manchester, New York: Manchester University Press) (2010).

Muraleedharan T., “Imperial migrations. Reading the Raj cinema of the 1980s” in British Historical Cinema, ed. Claire Monk, Amy Sargeant (London, New York: Routledge, 2002).

Nandy Ashis, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of the Self Under Colonialism, (Delhi: Oxford UP) (1983).

Radkiewicz Małgorzata, derek jarman: portret indywidualny, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo RABID) (2003).

Rushdie Salman, Outside the Whale, https://granta.com/outside-the-whale/, date accessed 4 September 2016.

Said Edward W., Culture and Imperialism, (London) (1994).

Stone Alan A., Drowned Out. Julie Taymor’s The Tempest, http://new.bostonreview.net/BR36.2/alan_a_stone_julie_taymor_tempest.php, date accessed 4 September 2016

Vaughan Alden T., Vaughan Virginia Mason, Shakespeare’s Caliban. A Cultural History, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) (1999).


[1] Andrew Higson, “Re-presenting the National Past: Nostalgia and Pastiche in the Heritage Film” in British Cinema and Thatcherism, ed. Lester D. Friedman (London, New York: Wallflower Press 2006), p. 104.

[2] Compare with: Stephen Bourne, “Secrets and lies. Black histories and British historical films” in British Historical Cinema, ed. Claire Monk, Amy Sargeant (London, New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 58.

[3] Cited by: Salman Rushdie, Outside the Whale, https://granta.com/outside-the-whale/, date accessed 4 September 2016.

[4] Salman Rushdie.

[5] Bart Moore-Gilbert, Hanif Kureishi, (Manchester, New York: Manchester University Press) (2010), p. 76.

[6] Alden T. Vaughan, Virginia Mason Vaughan, Shakespeare’s Caliban. A Cultural History, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) (1999), p. xx.

[7] Alden T. Vaughan, Virginia Mason Vaughan, p. xvi.

[8] Alan A. Stone, Drowned Out. Julie Taymor’s The Tempest, http://new.bostonreview.net/BR36.2/alan_a_stone_julie_taymor_tempest.php, date accessed 4 September 2016

[9] See: Małgorzata Radkiewicz, derek jarman: portret indywidualny, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo RABID) (2003), p.27.

[10] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, (London: Pluto Press) (2008), p. 112-113.

[11] Janja Ciglar-Žanić, “Anti-colonial Tempest: Theory and Practice of Postmodernist Shakespearean Reinscriptions”, Studia Romanica et Anglica Zagrabiensia 42 (1997), pp. 73.

[12] Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism, (London) (1994), p. 256-257. Cited in: Janja Ciglar-Žanić, p. 82-83. Said cites Lamming from: George Lamming, The Pleasures of Exile, (London: Allison & Busby) (1984), p. 107 and 119.

[13] T. Muraleedharan, “Imperial migrations. Reading the Raj cinema of the 1980s” in British Historical Cinema, ed. Claire Monk, Amy Sargeant (London, New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 150.

[14] T. Muraleedharan, p. 150.

[15] Leela Gandhi, Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction, (New York: Columbia University Press) (1998), p. 97.

[16] Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of the Self Under Colonialism, (Delhi: Oxford UP) (1983), p. 9-10. Cited in: Hema Chari, “Colonial Fantasies and Postcolonial Identities: Elaboration of Postcolonial Masculinity and Homoerotic Desire” in Postcolonial, Queer, ed. John C. Hawley (Albany: State University of New York Press) (2001), s. 281.

Bartłomiej Nowak, prior to completing his Ph.D. in Humanities in Art Studies at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland, he studied film studies and computer science. His doctoral dissertation about the presentation of ethnic minorities in modern British cinema and the postcolonial content of British movies was defended in 2015. His academic research concerns, among others, cinema, ethnic and sexual minorities, gender and postcolonial issues.

Transnational Bodies of Yogis: A Flow from Analogue Photography to Social Media

Bilge Gölge

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 90-99.

Bilge Gölge

Bilkent University


Transnational Bodies of Yogis: A Flow from Analogue Photography to Social Media



In the initial stages of “modern, transnational yoga”, the image of the Indian yogi in a yoga pose became an effective medium for introducing the discipline to Western society. Due to this, the Indian subject began to be spoken about in terms of “showmanship”[1]. At the same time, yoga began interacting with the practices of Western gym culture. Subsequent to the impact of photography, the emergence of the Internet and digital photography have created a different approach to yoga by practitioners. At the end of the historical process of modern postural yoga’s development, we encounter modern Western individuals who today utilize yoga as a way to present themselves through visual materials again, but in a digital space and different cultural context. In this paper, I present the historical evolution of yoga practices in Western society to reveal the re-contextualization of yoga as a transnational concept. Moreover, I question how transnational yoga became a means for modern individuals to present their identity in the context of social media. Here, the body is used as a means for both constituting a social dialogue and communicating self-identity. Even if these two subjects have different approaches towards yoga, Indian showmen and the modern yogi still have commonalities regarding the “show” in a Goffmanian sense[2]. To investigate the transformation of yoga and highlight similarities and differences due to both technological changes and the dominance of visuality in culture, Instagram is an appropriate platform, as it claims to connect people via images. Drawing from a visual analysis of Instagram posts and a comparison of the bodily practices contained within them against publicly available images of the first yogis in the West, bodily representations are interpreted in the re-contextualized setting of modern society.

Key words: yoga, yogi, self-presentation, transnational body, photography, social media


 As a physical discipline in the modern fitness culture of the West, yoga has been welcomed around the world and appreciated by the masses for its benefits to people’s lives since the early nineteenth century. Due to this growing popularity, the International Day of Yoga was adopted on the 21st June 2015 in a declaration by the UN General Assembly. The event was organized with the co-sponsorship of a record number of 175 nations. Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, proposed this Indian-led initiative, which is now celebrated all over the world, and the United Nations responded by emphasizing yoga’s “global benefits” in terms of individuals’ health and well-being[3].

Along with the widespread embracement of yoga by various cultures, regardless of diversified traditions, customs, religions, or geographic regions, the interaction between this Indian discipline and the West makes it worth investigating as a transnational concept, as it is influenced by global flows of knowledge disseminated through modern visual technologies. While there are a variety of types of yoga, postural yoga—a popular physical activity based on bodily practices—is the focus of this paper. Instead of meditation-based branches of yoga, non-religious yoga practice has been chosen for examination since it is prevalent in contemporary society today. Although spiritual aspects of yoga are promoted in the public eye, common practice in the West suggests that yoga’s increased popularity is due to the physical activity involved and the fact that it offers an enjoyable way of spending free time. Iyengar[4], who is one of the most well-known yoga gurus in the world, offered the definition of yoga that states that it is not a religion, but is intended for personal growth and physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual balance. While the religious roots of this Indian discipline are not ignored, the concerns of this paper are limited to styles of yoga based on asana, yoga posture, and physical techniques for physical and mental health of individuals. The flexibility of postural yoga has made it suitable for a multitude of social settings, as proven by the celebration of Yoga Day in 175 countries.

Here, digital photography of yogi Instagram users was analysed to identify yoga as a means of presenting self-identity in the digital realm. Through this presentation, the body becomes the focus and the modern subject uses social media and Instagram to live out their yogic self online. To investigate the bodily representations, the data was obtained from Instagram posts of Western yogis and the mass-distributed images of the first yogis in the West. According to Gillian Rose[5], images cannot speak for themselves: they must be analysed in a specific context in order to be meaningful. Therefore, it was important to consider the visual material in relation to the historical and social settings in which they were produced. Appropriately, the data was interpreted in terms of its content and the composition of the photographic images. Furthermore, understanding how users experienced the visual technologies as they developed over time is important in social research[6]. Hence, the photography’s discursive construction was examined, focusing on medium-specific features of magazines with early image production technologies, and social network services in the era of digital photography. It is also worth noting that the term yogi refers to male yoga practitioners, whereas yogini is used for female practitioners. To avoid repetition, the term “yogi” is used here for yoga practitioners, regardless of gender. Furthermore, “asana”, which means yoga pose or posture, is used throughout this paper for yoga moves in a sequence synchronized with breathing exercises[7].

Yoga as a Transnational Practice

 Stemming from the Sanskrit word yuj, the literal meaning of yoga corresponds to the English “unite”, which is interpreted as uniting body and mind[8]. Since the late 19th century, yoga—with its diverse set of rules— has preoccupied Western society; from the techniques of hatha yoga, which has become a generic term for yoga based on physical posture, to vinyasa yoga, which is based on a sequence of yoga moves. While “every group in every age has created its own version and vision of yoga”[9], its benefits on health and emotional stability have been manifested in dominant discourse.

As opposed to the common understanding of yoga in terms of its ancient roots and spiritual references, the modern postural yoga that we encounter today in the United States and European countries has a history of around 150 years[10]. Based on the works of Mark Singleton, one can affirm that what is practiced outside of India today should be viewed in relation to international gym culture. Concurrent with the proliferation of yoga in the West, it has continued to interact with contemporary physical practices. At the end of this historical process, society encountered yoga as a transnational product. It is a result of the colonial process while India was under British rule, nationalist movements in which yoga was used as a means for Indian identity, and finally global influences that are very powerful in forming modern yoga through increased mobility and developed communication technologies[11]. However, rather than being linear, the formation and re-formation of postural yoga has been influenced by increasing mobility in the modern world. Jain explains this, stating:

… (Yoga) does not move from India to Europe and North America, but rather moves back and forth among a plurality of spaces, resulting in multifarious forms that are perpetually constructed and reconstructed anew to adapt to new discourses, demands, and trends in the modern yoga market[12].

In the contemporary era, yoga is instrumentalized for Westerners’ self-presentation in a different cultural context. This time, beyond the offline lives of the individuals, the digital realm provides a Goffmanian stage for the yogic self. Especially on profile-based Social Network Services (SNSs) such as Instagram, the yogi portrays a different self than the one lived out by the Indian yoga gurus of the 20th century. Yet, the yogi still presents relevant aspects of her/his identity through the utilization of visual material whose aim is to influence the viewer’s impression. The self-identity in question appears in connection with consumption preferences regarding the yogic lifestyle, which is conveyed via specific sign equipment. Erving Goffman explains sign equipment as the tools that people employ for presenting themselves to others. These tools include the social setting of the communication, manner, and appearances, and allow individuals to sustain their performances during social interaction.[13]. For instance, healthy dietary habits are often shown on Instagram galleries and being a “vegetarian yogi” or “vegan yogi” is indicated in the biography section on Instagram. Leisure time activities and yoga outfits are also used as sign equipment for the construction of self-identity in the digital realm. After all, it is important to point out that all the choices framed in posted shots have a connection with the yoga body of yogis.

Regardless of the period of transnational yoga, the body has become the focus of the visual narrativization of yogic-identity and asana, or yoga postures; it has been used as a means of transmitting the messages beyond the physical practice itself. In addition to periodic differences and the characteristics of yogis, the yoga body has been portrayed within the bounds of the technology of its era. In this paper, I will investigate two periods of modern postural yoga and provide a comparison between yoga as self-representation by a post-colonial subject and self-actualization of the late-modern individual.

Here, Goffman’s dramaturgical approach provides a frame for explaining what the yoga body corresponds to on Instagram. Subsequent to the impact of photography, the emergence of the Internet and digital photography created a new relationship with yoga that has still some commonalities with the portrayal in a Goffmanian understanding. Instagram is an appropriate platform for investigating and comparing this transformation due both to technological changes and the superiority of visual imagery in contemporary communication as it claims to connect people via images that create stories.

By considering bodily practices of yoga (asanas) and their relation to cultural health and strength training trends beyond India, I attempt to provide a deeper understanding of how the yogi body conveys certain aspects of the performer’s identity from the past to today. Although the context and the motives have changed over time, I suggest that the visual presentation and dominance of viewing are effective for both the communication process of the yogi as well as the formation of transnational yoga.

The Subject of Yoga in the Age of Photography

 In the historical process, the nineteenth century appears as a breaking point in terms of the transformation of yoga into a global case. Several studies on the history of modern yoga suggest that yoga was a spiritual, male-dominated local discipline before it started to be re-formed through European influences; it subsequently evolved into a physical practice that appeals to both men and women and has become a secular and transnational phenomenon[14].

Especially in the second half of the 19th century, yoga was liberated from its traditional Indian context; after its interaction with other physical cultures such as Scandinavian gymnastics, a new phenomenon, which I refer to as modern postural yoga in this paper, entered the modern world’s stage. Mass production and distribution of images from India to Europe and United States were highly influential in bringing yoga to the West. Trips by yoga gurus to other parts of the world and the transmission of visual material via magazines, photographs and even films, led to transnational yoga becoming an issue to be considered beyond the context of India. In other words, it changed discourses in the international realm, re-contextualizing what yoga signifies. However, I would first like to explain the migration of yoga to the Western world, followed by a demonstration of what postural yoga portrays on today’s digital platforms, especially in the case of Instagram.

Turning back to the initial phases of modern yoga, the Indian post-colonial subject started to discuss his/her (mainly his) identity through yoga with the goal of presenting a national identity based on physical capability[15]. At this point, the development of photography enabled them to present their imaged bodies to the world. These mass distributed images made the introduction of modern transnational yoga to Western society possible, while Indian showmanship focused on the exotic and acrobatic Indian body, drawing attention to a discipline which was supposed to be an ancient tradition[16].

From colonial influences on Indian society to the revival of a national subject, yoga grew into an asana-based physical practice that took place in Western fitness culture, while the spiritual aspect of yoga has disappeared. In the modern era, national ideals have influenced the physical attributes of yoga to show strength and the vigour of the Indian man. In the past, yogis were not welcomed by society, rather, they were viewed as beggars or unwanted people. Freed from this pressure through a change in attitude, a new wave of physical culture appeared. When images from the period are examined, the man in a challenging yoga pose reflects a claim of Indian competence. On one hand, yoga is a means of supporting Indian ideals, which are the strength of the national subject and supremacy of the country’s tradition. On the other hand, as in international gymnastics, showmanship is practiced at the same time.

The case of Krishnamacharya is a good illustration of how an Indian man freed from British rule presented a performance to Western audience with intriguing bodily dispositions. This yoga guru, who was also the trainer of Iyengar—one of the best-known yogis in the world—introduced a yoga based on asanas that was similar to gymnastic exercises and aerobic moves. Yet, it is still unique as the embodiment of the authentic East in Western societal perception. In addition to still images, a few videos display him surprising and entertaining audiences with extraordinary poses. These depictions of him with some poses, such as Adho Mukha Vrksasana (handstand), Shirshasana (headstand) or Vrschikasana (scorpion) made him popular. Today, the videos of Krishnamacharya on YouTube have been watched more than 150,000 times.

fig 1 Golge

Figure  1: Krishnamacharya in a yoga pose (photo source: Wikipedia)

As illustrated in Figure 1, Krishnamachary’s pose bears a resemblance to contemporary yoga asanas. Here, the pose reflects both the strength and flexibility of a yoga body. Thinking in the context of the early periods of the 19th century, one can understand how surprising and—in a certain sense—entertaining this was for Europeans and North Americans.

The Yoga Body on the Social Network Stage

 In the age of social media, the medium for displaying yoga poses has changed and transformed from photography to digital tools and visual signs. In Instagram’s case, its medium is its megadata, which is constituted by still or moving images, text, and hashtags. Today, the Western subject itself has become a figure of spectacle. However, the body has remained central in visual communication, even in a re-contextualized sense in which publicly distributed images of yogis of different societies represent various narratives in their own contexts.

fig 2 Golge

Figure  2: An Instagram post of a handstand pose (courtesy of account owner)

Although its spiritual aspects are underlined and almost caricaturized in the public eye, yoga’s increasing popularity and common practice in the Western world are related to free-time physical activities. Within the context of late-modernity, it can be said that yoga is a physical discipline that is associated with identities and lifestyles. Accordingly, individuals faced with daily complexity due to a plurality of choices consistently construct their identities in relation to consumer culture[17]. Drawing on the definition of lifestyle sport[18], yoga practitioners “identify themselves through recognizable styles, bodily dispositions, expressions and attitudes, which they design into a distinctive lifestyle and a particular social identity”. In other words, yoga’s connotations with certain ways of living reflect the characteristics of late-modern society and its efformation of a subject that is flexible, fleeting, and self-reflexive. Furthermore, the influence of the consumption-oriented disposition is seen in the subject formation in question.

As a way of self-actualization, yogis and yoginis share similar experiences that tie their bodily practices to non-physical attributes (but again by utilizing ‘tangible’ or ‘visible’ tools) in terms of a holistic physical culture. Asanas communicate a way for self-actualization and, as Giddens states, the modern yogi presents his/her social-self agency during his/her daily life [19]. Handstands (see figure 2), for instance, are an indication of the physical and mental strength of the individual, while a personal message is represented via an unusual bodily practice. Flexibility, openness, and being at peace with himself/herself are other examples of characteristics yogis emphasize about themselves on Instagram.

In the context of late-modern society and the culture of connectivity,[20] yoga practitioners from Western societies use Instagram galleries to feed their identity construction and share emphasized characteristics of themselves via digital images. In their posts, where they can be seen standing on their hands or heads, wearing yoga pants, or on a yoga mat, these people publicly exhibit more individualistic performances compared to their Indian predecessors.

Many of the posts are supported by the composition of visual elements, hashtags, and tags that provide a relevant personal message about the yogis. These are specific characteristics in the contemporary case. Since the current technological possibilities enable yogis to produce and share these images instantly, and the hegemony of visuality in society forms the presentation in question, the yogi Instagrammers have a direct focus on visibility. When patterns of Instagram use are analysed, it is clear that the motive is to reach as large an audience as possible. For this reason, even though both context and content have changed, the “show” continues to be performed.

By viewing popular yogis on Instagram, we can say with some certainty that handstands, headstands, or other acrobatic poses still draw the public’s attention, likely influenced by the display-like Indian showmen. However, compared to the early period of modern postural yoga, we now see Western subjects and find individualistic messages about their self-identities. At this juncture, the presentation of the yogi self suggests a spectacle in the Debordian sense. Defined as the manipulation of the visual world to enforce late-capitalism’s expectations of the individual, the spectacle can be observed in the late-modern periods of yoga, in particular on the digital stage. “Spectacular representations”[21] of the yogis intercommunicate with experiences commodified through consumption-related preferences. Accordingly, the yogic identity in question is communicated by mixing different elements of everyday life, and auto-narratives are re-created for maintaining the self-presentation according to the conditions of contemporary consumer culture. In this self-communication, yoga appears as a means for a reflexively constructed self-identity of the late-modern subject.


 In conclusion, it can be said that modern postural yoga is a transnational phenomenon that arose from the interaction of the Indian original with colonial, nationalist, and global forces. Since its introduction outside of India, followers of yoga have reached an extensive number worldwide. Currently, its state reflects a new setting and context for the performances of yogis. Within the present social media environment, including Instagram, yoga has become related to both prevalent use of the online platform as a spectacle and its potential for supporting yogi self-actualization.

Because the visual medium has changed, the importance of keeping the performances updated and connecting asanas to more authentic meanings such as being physically and mentally strong has risen. This is achieved by supporting photography with texts on SNSs; in this way, transnational yoga is constantly being formed.

Drawing from visual analysis on Instagram posts of selected account owners and comparison of their bodily practices with the analogue photography of the first yogis in the West, there is ample support for the claim that the yoga body is a means for sustaining a display for social interaction and communicating self-identity, both in the past as well as today. However, it seems that due to changes in display, the concept has been transformed into a transnational phenomenon of the cultures with which yoga has interacted. Consequently, we can claim that modern postural yoga is a product of both the health and fitness system of the West, as well as original Indian tradition, and distributed by means of analogue images or smart phones.



Andrea R. Jain, „The Dual-Ideal of the Ascetic and Healthy Body: The Jain Terapanth and Modern Yoga in the Context of Late Capitalism”, Nova Religio 15:3 (2012), pp.29-50.

Anthony Giddens, Modernity and self-identity: Self and society in the late-modern age, (Cambridge, Polity Press) (1991). p.57.

Belinda Wheaton, „Introducing the consumption and representation of lifestyle sports”, Sports in Society, 13:7-8 (2010), pp. 1057-1081.

David Gordon White, Yoga in Practice, (Princeton: Princeton University Press) (2012), pp. 2-22.

Definition of Yoga, http://yoga.org.nz/what-is-yoga/yoga_definition.htm, date accessed 1 November 2016.

Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, (University of Edinburgh, Social Sciences Research Center). (1959).

Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, (Detroit, Black & Red Publications) (1970).

Jeff Ferrell, Keith J. Hayward, Jock Young, Cultural Criminology, (London: SAGE Publications Ltd.) (2008).

Gillian Rose, Visual Methodologies; An Introduction To The Interpretation Of Visual Materials, (London: Sage). (2001).

International Day of Yoga, http://www.un.org/en/events/yogaday/background.shtml, date accessed 5 August 2016.

Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar, The Tree of Yoga: Yoga Vka, (Shambhala Publications) (1989).

Mark Singleton, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, (Oxford University Press) (2010).

Sarah Pink, Doing Ethnography: Images, Media and Representation in Research, (London: Sage) (2001).

Sarah Strauss, „The Master’s Narrative: Swami Sivananda and the Transnational Production of Yoga”, Journal of Folklore Research, 39:2/3 (2002), pp. 217-241.



[1] Mark Singleton, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, (Oxford University Press) (2010).

[2] Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, (University of Edinburgh, Social Sciences Research Center). (1959).

[3] International Day of Yoga, http://www.un.org/en/events/yogaday/background.shtml, date accessed 5 August 2016.

[4] Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar, The Tree of Yoga: Yoga Vka, (Shambhala Publications) (1989).

[5] Gillian Rose, Visual Methodologies; An Introduction To The Interpretation Of Visual Materials, (London: Sage). (2001).

[6] Sarah Pink, Doing Ethnography: Images, Media and Representation in Research, (London: Sage) (2001).

[7] Andrea R. Jain, „The Dual-Ideal of the Ascetic and Healthy Body: The Jain Terapanth and Modern Yoga in the Context of Late Capitalism”, Nova Religio 15:3 (2012), pp.29-50.

[8] Definition of Yoga, http://yoga.org.nz/what-is-yoga/yoga_definition.htm, date accessed 1 November 2016.

[9] David Gordon White, Yoga in Practice, (Princeton: Princeton University Press) (2012), pp. 2-22.

[10] Mark Singleton.

[11] Andrea R. Jain.

[12] Andrea R. Jain, p. 30.

[13] Erving Goffman.

[14] See, for example,  Mark Singleton, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, (Oxford University Press) (2010). And also see, Sarah Strauss, „The Master’s Narrative: Swami Sivananda and the Transnational Production of Yoga”, Journal of Folklore Research, 39:2/3 (2002), pp. 217-241.

[15] Mark Singleton.

[16] Mark Singleton, pp. 40, 154, 164.

[17] Jeff Ferrell, Keith J. Hayward, Jock Young, Cultural Criminology, (London: SAGE Publications Ltd.) (2008).

[18] Belinda Wheaton, „Introducing the consumption and representation of lifestyle sports”, Sports in Society, 13:7-8 (2010), pp. 1057-1081.

[19] Anthony Giddens, Modernity and self-identity: Self and society in the late-modern age, (Cambridge, Polity Press) (1991). p.57.

[20] The phrase is borrowed from van Dijk who has a book with the same title.

[21] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, (Detroit, Black & Red Publications) (1970).


Bilge Gölge is an M.A. student in Media and Visual Studies Program at Bilkent University. She holds a BS from the Middle East Technical University and a minor degree in architectural culture. She is currently completing her master thesis, which investigates self-presentation of Turkey’s yoga community in social media, specifically on Instagram. Her research interests include social media, online self-presentation, and communication patterns through visual media.

Contact Information: bilgegolge@bilkent.edu.tr

Slow Expansion. Neomodernism as a Postnational Tendency in Contemporary Cinema

Miłosz Stelmach

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 100-117.

Miłosz Stelmach

Jagiellonian University


Slow Expansion. Neomodernism as a Postnational Tendency in Contemporary Cinema



The article presents a theoretical overview of a distinctive strand of contemporary cinema identified in the text as neomodernism (as defined by Rafał Syska). It focuses on works of filmmakers such as Béla Tarr, Aleksander Sokurov or Tsai Ming-liang and their followers and tries to present them as a part of informal postnational artistic movement developing in cinema from mid-90s onward. The aim of the article is to examine critically the journalistic and reductive category of slow cinema usually applied to auteurs mentioned above and propose term more burdened with cultural connotations and thus open for nuanced historical and theoretical studies. The particular attention is given to the international character of neomodernism that negates the traditional boundaries of national schools as well as the division of centre-periphery in world cinema shaped by the first wave of postwar modernist cinema. Neomodernism rather moves the notion of centre to the institutional level with the growing importance of festivals, film agents and public fund that take the place of production companies as the main actors in the transnational net of art-house cinema circulation.

Key words: contemporary cinema, modernism, slow cinema, postnational cinema, neomodernism



The article presents a theoretical overview of a distinctive strand of contemporary cinema identified in the text as neomodernism (as defined by Rafał Syska). It focuses on works of filmmakers such as Béla Tarr, Aleksander Sokurov or Tsai Ming-liang and their followers and tries to present them as a part of informal postnational artistic movement developing in cinema from mid-90s onward. The aim of the article is to examine critically the journalistic and reductive category of slow cinema usually applied to auteurs mentioned above and propose term more burdened with cultural connotations and thus open for nuanced historical and theoretical studies. The particular attention is given to the international character of neomodernism that negates the traditional boundaries of national schools as well as the division of centre-periphery in world cinema shaped by the first wave of postwar modernist cinema. Neomodernism rather moves the notion of centre to the institutional level with the growing importance of festivals, film agents and public fund that take the place of production companies as the main actors in the transnational net of art-house cinema circulation.

Key words: contemporary cinema, modernism, slow cinema, postnational cinema, neomodernism



Over the course of the last two decades, the debate over cinema and modernism has taken the form of a dialectical struggle since two distinctive theoretical standpoints emerged, of which the more traditional and still dominant is rooted in art history and literary studies of the post-war years. It is focused on tracing the signs of high modernism in cinema, locating it mostly in the field of international art film practice of both the pre-war (avant-garde and national film schools of 1920s) and post-war (New Wave and New Cinemas of the 1960s and 1970s) eras.[1] We can call this understanding of cinematic modernism “exclusive” as it refers to the language of formal innovation, auteurism, and a break with classical cinema. Lately, this perspective has been recapitulated and thoroughly explicated by András Bálint Kovács in his book-length study.[2] Kovács identifies subjectivity, reflexivity, and abstraction as basic characteristics of all modernist art[3] and finds them in the post-war films of directors such as Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, Robert Bresson, or auteurs associated with French New Wave, among others.

The oppositional, “inclusive” theory of modernism in cinema was conceived as a radical departure from this discourse. Since the 1990s, many scholars (often associated with the term New Modernist Studies) have contradicted the conservative Greenbergian account of modernism as a drive toward formalism, artistic sophistication, and medium specificity. Instead, they perceived it as a cinematic expression and representation of modernity in its various forms that is not restricted to the field of high artistic practice, but rather comprises mass cultural production. Miriam Bratu Hansen’s 1999 essay, which is probably the most emblematic and influential work in this vein, calls Hollywood cinema “vernacular modernism”,[4] and this term caught on.[5] In her understanding, “modernism encompasses a whole range of cultural and artistic practices that register, respond to, and reflect upon processes of modernization and the experience of modernity, including a paradigmatic transformation of the conditions under which art is produced, transmitted, and consumed”.[6] In this sense, early comic strips and Russian socialist realist musicals are just as (or even more) modernist as Ulysses or movies by Ingmar Bergman because of the way they transform and exploit new possibilities of perception born from the spirit of modernity. In its most radical form, this “modernity thesis” tries to prove that cinema as a whole is a modern art: the product and consequence of modernity defined by its technological and industrial character.[7]

Although the two described standpoints might appear to be distinct, competing approaches to the same problem, namely cinematic modernism, I would suggest that the situation is in fact the opposite: they examine two different phenomena claiming the same designation. The disparity between them is demonstrable not simply in the choice of cultural texts they seem to be primarily interested in (“high” vs. “popular” art), but even more importantly in the way they try to position those texts. The proponents of cinema as vernacular modernism focus mostly on the social, industrial, and cultural context in which movies exist. These specific conditions make classical cinema a vital part of late 19th and early to mid-20th century modernity as it was experienced by moviegoers all over the world, since cinema according to Hansen became the world’s first “global vernacular”.[8] As a consequence, their aim is to describe a certain historical point of “paradigmatic transformation of the conditions under which art is produced, transmitted, and consumed”.

By contrast, the idea of modern cinema, as derived from Clement Greenberg’s writings and represented today by András Bálint Kovács, concentrates more on the interrelations within cinema history itself rather than its social context. It is more interested in aesthetic autonomy and internal development of specific art forms and their inherent features. Cultural, political, and social contexts obviously play an important role in this argument; however, they are mostly used as possible hypotheses explaining certain formal and stylistic devices. This line of argumentation was employed also by many authors who did not use the term “Modernism” but were highly influential and contributed greatly to the debate on the term. Key examples might be David Bordwell, who identified “art cinema” as one of the four main historical modes of film practice,[9] or Gilles Deleuze, for whom post-war international cinema of “Time-Image” was the fullest possible realization of medium specificity.[10]

Narrated in this manner, the story of modernism appears to be an evolutionary process of progressing sophistication of a given art in the search for its expressive potential. The crucial consequence of equating modernism with a set of formal qualities (instead of considering its relation to the broader cultural and social field) is the possibility of conceptualizing it as a trans-historical phenomenon. Although Kovács defined modernism as a completed historical period, his recounting of it allows for some trans-historical interpretation when he remarks, “narrative techniques, after they become accepted, remain in fact available for anyone, anywhere, anytime. Historical ‘modes of narration’, however, are conglomerates of certain techniques that are more fashionable in certain periods and in certain parts of the world than in others”.[11] This makes it possible to understand modernism as a set of artistic choices that became less frequently used in the course of 1970s and 1980s, but are still available and one day may come back into favour. This idea of recurring modernist tropes, reappearing in different periods and cultural contexts, is nothing new to modernism studies but has never been convincingly employed in film studies, where it is generally believed that high modernist cinema ended sometime in the mid-70s.

While it might be true for some particular forms of modernist film, specific to the international art cinema of ’60s, I would like to argue that its spirit survived and began reappearing in a new form around mid-90s, gaining full momentum about decade later. The whole wave of directors, led by figures like Béla Tarr, Aleksander Sokurov and Tsai Ming-liang and subsequently joined by younger filmmakers, established what I will call a neomodernist trend in contemporary cinema. This article is an attempt to sketch a historical and theoretical overview of this informal movement, taking specific note of its modernist character and transnational scope.

The eternal return


When John Orr attempted to explain the temporal gap between the two phases of modernism in cinema, he referred to the latter as a Nietzschean return to the modern. He described the modernist impulse as a cyclical movement, intersecting from time to time the main, linear path of cinema history: “a return to the modern in a more technically advanced form, (…) recurrence as the completion of form”.[12] Thus, the continuity of the modernist tendency might be disturbed by external (e.g. political) as well as internal (e.g. technological, such as the coming of sound) factors, but the idea and vision of the cinema behind it will be very much alive. However, his 1993 diagnosis concludes that “a second and momentous return of the modern seems unlikely”.[13] He argues that the legacy of modernist cinema has been largely absorbed and adapted into mainstream post-classical cinema and selectively reworked, sometimes in a mannerist way, by postmodern cinema.

Interestingly enough, only a couple of years after Orr wrote these words, the aforementioned group of directors emerged, who tried to avoid both of those paths through creative adaptation of the post-war model of art cinema. They presented films that might enable us to reconsider Orr’s statement about the unlikeliness of another return to the modernist impulse, such as Tsai Ming-Liang’s Vive L’Amour (1994), Béla Tarr’s Satantango (1994), Sokurov’s Mat i syn/Mother and Son (1997), Abbas Kiarostami’s Ta’m e guilass/Taste of Cherry (1997) or Bruno Dumont’s La Vie de Jesus (1997). Their affinity with the older modernist generation was instantly noticed and is still underlined by many critics who frequently try to establish a connection between these modern movies and their historical ancestors. Alexander Sokurov is regularly described as Tarkovsky’s apprentice, Tarr as heir to Jancsó‘s poetics, Dumont as a reinterpreter of Bresson’s work, and Tsai as a contemporary Antonioni, to mention only the most important names of the movement. The beginning of the following decade showed another strong group of directors (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Carlos Reygadas, Lav Diaz and others) following the same path.

Nevertheless, it’s very clear that this artistic indebtedness doesn’t make them merely imitators or “retro” artists, but rather positions them as the newest incarnation of the “tradition of the new,” to quote Harold Rosenberg’s aphoristic definition of artistic modernism. They reach for modernist formalism as well as certain narratives and stylistic and thematic patterns and use them in very idiosyncratic ways, exploring their possibilities and limitations. At the same time, it should be noted that none of the aforementioned directors constitute an organized or even informal “movement”, “school”, or “current”. They represent rather a tendency, a shared attitude toward the medium of cinema and a common sensibility. They come from different continents, generations, and cultural and historical backgrounds, yet their films, resisting both mainstream commercialism and postmodern stylistic games, bear an unmistakable resemblance to each other’s.

Although the opposition between this wave of modernism and alternative modes of the mainstream or the postmodern might be seen as evaluative, its assumptions are (or at least should be) essentially descriptive. This is also the way Kovács understood the distinction between modernism and other modes of film practice: “When we speak of ‘art films’ as opposed to ‘commercial entertainment films’, we are referring not to aesthetic qualities but to certain genres, styles, narrative procedures, distribution networks, production companies, film festivals, film journals, critics, groups of audiences; in short, institutionalized film practice”.[14] As early as 1981, Steve Neale tried to define “art cinema” not only in narrative or aesthetic terms, but also (and maybe even primarily) as an institution.[15] This is also the way the newest development of modernist filmmaking should be considered: as a certain quality of films themselves and the discourse they inhabit.



The term “neomodern” in terms of the distinctive strain of contemporary art cinema was proposed by Polish film scholar Rafał Syska, who introduced it in a series of articles and eventually a book-length study.[16] He calls neomodernism a “slow rebellion” and largely identifies it with the phenomenon of so-called slow cinema. This term—very much present in today’s film journalism and promoted by people such as Sight & Sound’s contributor Jonathan Romney,[17]—refers to a specific type of art cinema, forming a non-unified but very strong and visible trend on the contemporary festival circuit. As Thomas Elsaesser crisply explained, “slow cinema (also sometimes referred to as ‘contemplative cinema’) counters the blockbuster’s over-investment in physical action, spectacle and violence with long takes, quiet observation, an attention to detail, to inner stirrings rather than to outward restlessness, highlighting the deliberate or hesitant gesture, rather than the protagonist’s drive or determination”.[18] Other key characteristic features of slow movies include behaviourist and anti-psychological depiction of characters (very often played by non-professional actors), abandoning strict narrative causality in favour of episodic or impressionistic storytelling while still maintaining intensified continuity. As a consequence, they tend to put a greater focus on showing instead of telling, or in other words, they encourage the dominance of monstrating over narrating, to use André Gaudreault’s dichotomy.[19] Directors working in this vein usually avoid non-diegetic music, explanatory dialogue, overt dramaturgical tensions, and clear resolutions.

Many slow cinema movies, although deprived of any commercial potential, have gained critical, academic, and festival acclaim, forming a small but distinctive canon. This canon consists of all the previously mentioned directors as well as the somewhat less recognized but influential Lisandro Alonso and Albert Serra, not to mention dozens of artists who have achieved smaller acknowledgment. These auteurs are also described by Syska in his study of neomodern cinema, in which he analyses recurring thematic and stylistic tropes of the movement as well as individual artistic strategies of its most important figures.

However, why do we need a new term if the discourse on slow cinema is already well established? The answer is twofold. Firstly, this appellation might serve well as a journalistic buzzword, but its explanatory power is very limited. It reduces the entire diverse group of films to only one, quantitative aspect: slowness (measured by the average shot length, lack of on-screen movement or focus on observation and contemplation instead of action). The sluggish pace of certain works draws disproportionate attention, provoking the praise of dedicated aficionados as well as the eloquent critiques of their adversaries. As a result, the ongoing debate on slow cinema and its predominance on the festival circuit was taken over by two opposing groups exchanging arguments for and against the artistic qualities of these films, to some extent restraining more nuanced historical and theoretical studies.

Attempts to define contemporary contemplative cinema in relation to cinematic modernism, as proposed by Syska, might help us replace the ahistorical category of slow cinema with one more burdened with cultural connotations, thus opening new avenues of studies. Besides, the majority of descriptions of the movement focus mostly on its antithetic position toward mainstream commercial films. While it is obviously true that these films stand in distinctive opposition to the post-classical cinema of attractions, they should be characterized not only as a negative movement but also as a part of a positive, modernist project of developing new reflexive structures of perception and the interrelated cinematic forms most appropriate to express them. As Maureen Turim put it in relation to cinema, “high modernism is seen as philosophical and formal, restructuring temporality, spatial relationships, and pictorial representation with a dedicated seriousness that consequently limits its commercial acceptance”.[20] Neomodernism can be seen as a continuation (or even an intensification) of this self-reflexive reconsidering of the medium’s parameters such as time and space.

There is also another reason to consider the term neomodernism more carefully. Although Syska clearly puts all slow cinema’s most important figures at the centre of his argument, in my opinion the two categories should not be seen as identical. They certainly largely overlap, but not every slow movie can be called neomodernist and not every neomodernist work has to be particularly slow. The latter point might be illustrated by some of the recent works of Michael Haneke, who went through his “modernist turn” in the 2000s (thereby following the example of most of the early neomodernist directors, who began their careers with movies that cannot be put in this category, the best example of which might be the unofficial leader of the movement, Béla Tarr, whose early features were socially committed, realist dramas). From Code inconnu: Récit incomplet de divers voyages/Code Unknown (2000) onward, Haneke abandoned his earlier poetics, which evinced some postmodern characteristics, and began to focus more on formal qualities of the image, questions of subjectivity, and references to high art. Films like Caché (2005), Das weiße Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte/The White Ribbon (2009) or L’amour (2012) might be described as neomodernist, although they are usually not associated with the slow cinema movement. On the other hand, some slow movies might lack modernist conceptualism and self-reflexivity.

Furthermore, the term neomodernism might serve as a link to phenomena existing outside the field of cinema. It was already used in regard to other disciplines such as fine arts, architecture and philosophy, where neomodernist tendencies that reject the fashionable influence of postmodernism in favour of the revitalization of earlier modern forms were perceived.[21] Victor Grauer proposed the name as early as 1982, when on the wider ground of art-historical periodization he advocated for a neomodern aesthetics which may be defined as a return to the most fundamental tenets of “formalist modernism”.[22]

Although “nothing is more unfashionable than a fashion that’s out of fashion”, the question of postmodernism has to be addressed briefly at this point. Regardless of whether one agrees with Umberto Eco and Jean-François Lyotard, for whom postmodernism was only a late, mannerist phase of modernism that exposed some of its features and pushed them to their limits (whilst simultaneously downplaying others),[23] or shares the view of Douwe Fokkema, who argued that postmodernist strategies express a radical break with modernist aesthetics,[24] we can roughly identify the leading formal and thematic characteristics of postmodernist cinema. These have already been described many times and in great detail and do not require another recapitulation here. However, whatever postmodernism is (or was), it is clearly contested by the neomodern directors, wishing to forgo its eccentricity, pastiche and playful intertextuality.



Although historical accounts of post-war cinematic modernism agree on the late 70s as the end date for the movement, sharp and precise periodization was never fully possible. As Turim noted, “there has never been much sense in insisting on the linearity of development of an art whose entire history coincides with modernism in the other arts”.[25] Different paradigms always co-existed (and sometimes competed) with each other; only the centre of gravity shifted over the years, when some techniques and devices become less fashionable and other means of expression replaced them. This is exactly what happened in the late 70s and early 80s and was the turning point for art-house cinema, when some key modernist auteurs passed away (Pasolini, Fassbinder) or stopped making movies (Antonioni, Bresson), while those still active moved either toward more avant-garde practice, becoming marginal figures in the industry (Godard) or, on the contrary, lost their modernist temperament and adapted to more mainstream stylistics (Wenders, Akerman).

This dwindling of 70s modernism does not mean that there is no bridge linking the two modernist formations. Just as Luis Buñuel and Carl Theodor Dreyer might be seen as a connection between pre- and post-war phases of modernism in cinema, Theodoros Angelopoulos would be the best example of a director who came from the late 1960s/early 1970s generation of art-house filmmakers and restlessly carried his modernist aesthetics into the 21st century. Rafał Syska calls him one of the few “depositaries of modernism”, consistently affirming values of high modernism in international art cinema. Unlike most of his peers, Angelopoulos continued making persistently elitist, uncompromisingly auteurist, and formally challenging works throughout his entire career. Symptomatically, a collection of essays on Angelopoulos edited in 1997 was entitled The Last Modernist.[26]

The movies of this Greek auteur already showed the direction that the next wave of modernist directors would take. If the late modernist works of Buñuel, Fellini, Godard or Fassbinder were getting gradually closer to postmodernist aesthetics and might have influenced and fertilized this current (when listing instances of postmodernism in different fields of cultural production, Frederic Jameson wrote: “in film, everything that comes out of Godard:  contemporary vanguard film and video”[27]), then neo-modernism clearly draws more from Bresson, Antonioni or Tarkovsky: the minimalist pole of modernism’s wide stylistic spectrum. While Kovács identified minimalism as one of the four most general styles of modernism in cinema (along with the naturalist, theatrical and ornamental), he noted “from 1959, stylistic austerity and reductionism became fashionable, and minimalism became the strongest and most influential trend of modern cinema”.[28]

Reducing the expressive qualities of film form and simplifying thematic or narrative layers without renouncing their sophistication and semantic potential was the main effort of many directors of the time, but if minimalism in the 1960s was the “strongest and most influential trend of modern cinema”, in the 1990s and 2000s it became an almost uncontested one. Whether it’s Tarr’s expressive aestheticism in A torinói ló/The Turin Horse (2010), Alonso’s naturalistic austerity in La libertad (2001) or Sokurov’s empathetic intimacy in Mother and Son, these and other neomodernist directors usually deny the intense emotional involvement encouraged and aroused by (neo)classical movies. In its most radical form, contemporary cinematic minimalism presents itself as a self-prescribed neoprimitivism (echoing the Bressonian call for „cinematograph” as opposed to „cinema”—a spectacle that spoiled the primal purity of the medium), as in the case of Paz Encina’s Hamaca Paraguaya (2006), Albert Serra’s Honor de cavalleria/Honour of the Knights (2006), and El cant dels ocells /Birdsong (2008).

Neomodern minimalism, however dominant, is not pure as it frequently incorporates other styles defined by Kovács, especially the naturalist. Formal asceticism in many cases goes hand in hand with behaviourism, since many slow cinema filmmakers focus on dispassionate observation of everyday routine and time’s arduous passage. Influenced by such modernist ventures as Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), they avoid conventional ellipses by showing trivial actions in their full duration and replacing any possible plot progression with intentional and intense “non-happening”. The naturalistic bent of directors like Tsai Ming-liang, Bruno Dumont, or Lisandro Alonso can be seen in the way they portray characters’ privacy and intimacy, very often exploring their physical (or even physiological) dimension.

This anti-psychological attitude, emphasizing materiality and physicality over the character’s motivation or personality, must entail not only a different set of stylistic devices but also distinct types of characters. The model heroes of neomodern cinema are not the cultured, reflexive intellectuals portrayed in the 1960s by Fellini and Bergman or the careless bon vivants of some French New Wave films. Now it is the members of underprivileged classes who get the most screen time. They are more often rural than urban, usually in a difficult economic position, and on the margins of their own society. This tendency brings a completely different sensibility to the works of, for example, Béla Tarr or Alexander Sokurov, although it hardly makes films like The Turin Horse or Mother and Son politically or socially committed works: both directors (like most neomodern auteurs) are more interested in existential and contemplative aspects of their works—and in developing a unique cinematic form to express them—than in direct political message.

Characters like these appeared rarely in proper cinematic modernism, introduced and honoured sometimes by Pasolini (in Accattone [1961] and Mamma Roma [1962]) or Bresson (in Au hasard Balthasar [1966] and Mouchette [1967]). Contemporary modernist directors, although they show real social commitment only sporadically, direct their camera lenses away from the higher or middle classes, prosperous cities and industrial landscapes, focusing more on people and places that are usually considered peripheral or marginal. What’s more—marking the difference between post-war modern cinema and its contemporary incarnation—this movement from the central to the peripheral takes place not only on the thematic level. One can even say that the shift described above is merely a reflection or consequence of the industry’s dispersion.

…and expanding


The silent modernist cinema, identified by most scholars with the European avant-garde movements of the 1920s, was almost exclusively restricted to just a couple of artistic „hubs”. It was mostly Germany, France and Russia (or, to be more exact, Berlin, Paris and Moscow) with their highly developed industrial base and thriving film culture, that served as capitals of high art in cinema. This situation was not unusual in the history of modern art, which was always highly concentrated in certain privileged places; at some point Greenberg even suggested that modernism is a particularly French phenomenon.[29]

In the 1960s and 1970s, at the height of the second wave of modernist cinema, France was still leading with the tremendously influential New Wave: the narrative experiments of the so-called Left Bank group and progressive cinéma-vérité documentarists. Other traditional „superpowers” of cinema also made their important contributions, putting Italian auteurs and German New Cinema filmmakers on the forefront of new aesthetics and politics in film. However, this was also the moment when the range of modernism in cinema expanded vastly. It encompassed many areas that were formerly regarded as marginal in terms of highly artistic film production. Most notable examples are some Eastern European countries (Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia all had an impact on the international art film scene) and two vital non-European movements that reached out to the Western festival circuit and art-house audience with their very original propositions: Japanese New Wave and Brazilian Cinema Novo. Kovács describes this process briefly:

The first phase of modernism was mainly an isolated national phenomenon in German, French, and Soviet cinema, whereas the second phase of modernism was a general phenomenon of global dimensions: apart from most of the European filmmaking countries, Japanese, Indian, and Brazilian new cinemas as well as the North American underground were all contributing to the second modernist movement. It was important as a global film art movement as much as a local national cultural phenomenon.[30]

It is worth noting that although he acknowledges this meaningful expansion, Kovács limits his own interests to European modernism. The subtitle of his seminal book “European Art Cinema 1950-1980” justifies this exclusion and allows him to dismiss smoothly the valid question of defining the relationship between modernism and non-Western art. Nevertheless, it has to be questioned openly: is speaking about the Japanese New Wave as a modernist movement (as in David Desser’s classical study Eros Plus Massacre[31]) evidence of global circulation of aesthetics and politics in international cinema, or is it just an expression of cultural and academic imperialism, imposing familiar categories of description on unfamiliar phenomena? Does it oversimplify our object of studies, reducing it to the role of derivative of European art cinema? Alternatively, maybe it actually enriches our understanding of it, showing relations, tropes, or possible interpretations we could otherwise miss?

This complex problem seems even more pressing in relation to the contemporary cinema of global (co)production, distribution, and reception. However, my argument is that a more synthetic approach that encompasses diverse phenomena might be helpful in some cases, if applied carefully and purposefully. Applying the wide and open term of neomodernism to the films of, for example, Apichatpong Weerasethakul is not a way of denying their intriguing cultural specificity, rooted deeply in Buddhist spirituality and philosophy, but rather an attempt to identify some typically modernist narrative strategies he uses to implement this local tradition into his filmmaking practice. This combination is not unusual for neomodernist directors, who often translate very specific cultural experiences into the more universal language of international art cinema. Because of their cultural specificity, the works of Weerasethakul are frequently described as highly “exotic” for Western audiences. However, at the same time we must remember that they are co-produced by as many as 5 European countries (Loong Boonmee raleuk chat/Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives [2010]), shown and celebrated at the most prestigious European film festivals (and honoured with the Palme d’or at Cannes 2010), and distributed all around the world through the art house circuit, while being almost ignored (and sometimes even banned, as in the case of Sang sattawat/Syndromes and a Century [2006]) in his native Thailand. Due to exhibition restrictions imposed on his films, he announced recently that Cemetery of Splendour (2015) would be the last film he shot in his homeland. This example shows that no matter how “Thai” Weerasethakul films seem, they are actually produced mostly for a European audience by European producers.

This international (or rather postnational) character of neomodern cinema can be observed also on the part of the artist him/herself. Although filmmakers from different parts of the world draw richly from local artistic traditions, they are at the same time deeply entangled in a complex global network of artistic and economic connections. Weerasethakul was educated at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he studied the films of important figures of early slow cinema in the 1990s: Tarr, Tsai, and Kiarostami.[32] Weerasethakul openly speaks about his involvement in international art film culture that overrides national or cultural divisions[33], and of his inspirations from European modernist cinema of the 1960s.[34] Now he is one of the lecturers at Sarajevo’s Film.factory: a film school founded and managed by Béla Tarr, who invited many important figures of slow cinema to form the faculty.

Unobvious connections like the ones described above lead to the vital question of neomodernism’s geography. Generally, when examining the problem of modernism, one has to ask not only when it happened, but also where it happened. In relation to modernist literature, Susan Stanford Friedman recalled Frederic Jameson’s call to “always historicize” and complemented it with her own plea: “always spatialize”.[35] The same is also valid for cinema, and the contemporary global artistic market requires new kinds of analysis. This is also why new terms are coined readily; Nicolas Bourriaud proposed the name altermodernism, defined “by rapidly increasing lines of communication and travel in a globalized world. If early twentieth-century Modernism is characterized as a broadly Western cultural phenomenon, and Postmodernism was shaped by ideas of multi-culturalism, origins and identity, Altermodern is expressed in the language of a global culture. Altermodern artists channel the many different forms of social and technological networks offered”.[36]

Contemporary neomodernist cinema completes this slow process of decentralization, progressing gradually from highly condensed pre-war European movements through the first truly global artistic trends in the age of New Waves and arriving at XXI century radical dispersion. Today, the well-established and long-celebrated national cinemas of France, Italy, or Germany seem to be somewhat exhausted when it comes to high modernist filmmaking, and the refreshing impulses most often come from countries that until recently didn’t have much art-house exposure. This brings to attention a familiar argument that will not be further developed in this article but has to be mentioned: modernist aesthetics emerge in countries where the processes of modernization are the most persistent at a given moment. Whatever the reason was, neomodernism was born at the same time in Tsai Ming-liang’s Taiwan, Abbas Kiarostami’s Iran, Alexander Sokurov’s Russia, and Béla Tarr’s Hungary; later on, directors from Latin America, Western and Eastern Europe, and the Middle and Far East all contributed to the shaping of this new tendency.

Nevertheless, it must be stressed firmly that this change is not a matter of plain relocation. The informal capital of modernist cinema did not simply move from the Paris of the 1960s New Wave to, for example, the Bangkok of Apichatpong Weerasethakul in the 2000s. There is something more to it: the capital ceased to exist and the periphery became a centre. This shift can be observed on the smaller, national level as well: for example, in the career of Bruno Dumont, who can be considered a main figure of French neomodernist cinema. Contrary to all his predecessors from the long tradition of French film modernism, Dumont lives, shoots and sets his movies mostly in rural areas of the Nord region, symbolically abandoning Paris, the city towering over all French cinema to this day.

 At the same time, the disappearance of clearly defined centres of modernist cinema production does not mean that there are no “hubs”. As always, this function is fulfilled partially by film festivals, cinema journals, and public institutions supporting and promoting film culture. However, the real revolution that made this global neomodernist movement possible was the development of an international coproduction model. Due to the large number of film funds and production or distribution companies, Western Europe remains the centre of gravity for international art cinema. European Union countries (especially France and Germany) dominated this market of cultural production, coproducing films of almost every celebrated neomodernist director from all over the world. Most of these directors began their career making locally produced films, but all the mature works of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Tsai Ming-liang, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Abbas Kiarostami, Carlos Reygadas, Eastern European directors like Béla Tarr and Alexander Sokurov, and others were made thanks to Western European funds.

Production and distribution companies like Germany’s The Match Factory or France’s Wild Bunch, big TV companies (ZDF, Arte, Canal +) and public film funds (the Hubert Bals Fund or the Council of Europe-funded Euroimages) are responsible for producing most of the films that can be considered as neomodernist. These movies are made under the supervision of European producers, largely with the international festivals and art-house audiences in mind. The influence of this economic conditioning on the aesthetic, political, and artistic qualities of works is yet to be examined, but it resolutely precludes the notion that directors from different cultural backgrounds are completely separated from the international film circuit. This complicated situation will most probably soon force us to rethink thoroughly our idea of centre/periphery relations in the field of artistic production and the institutional basis of contemporary art cinema.

Sense of an ending


Academic reflection comes too late, as always. The last couple of years finally brought the first scholarly monographs analysing slow cinema more closely. They include expanded overviews of the entire movement[37] as well as book-length studies of its most prominent figures: Béla Tarr, Tsai Ming-liang, and Aleksander Sokurov.[38] They were published at an interesting point of solstice, when the movement seems to have been at its most influential but at the same time probably close to its end. Neomodernism, as expected, is a slow movement. It rose to prominence slowly in the 1990s without any manifestos or glamorous successes and now we can presumably observe its equally slow decline. Symptoms are numerous.

Some of the earliest directors creating the canon of neomodernism in 1990s have now reached the culmination of their long-developed poetics. Their radical artistic pursuit led them to the point of no return. Béla Tarr quit filmmaking after the apocalyptically minimalist The Turin Horse and became engaged in other activities supporting the film industry as president of the Hungarian Filmmakers’ Association and the head of the film school in Sarajevo. Tsai Ming-liang announced that he was abandoning feature filmmaking and focusing on short forms like his series of filmed performances of “slow walking”. Each of those films pictures Lee Kang-sheng (Tsai’s long-standing collaborator) dressed as a Buddhist monk and performing an extremely slow walk in a public place. Filmed with a distanced, immobile camera and without any trace of plot, this series marks a final stage of slow cinema’s pursuit of contemplation and the void. Before Tarr and Tsai, Abbas Kiarostami made a similar shift away from feature filmmaking, realizing a series of highly experimental films in the mid-2000s but then moving back to more conventional filmmaking with his final projects completed before his death in 2016: Copie conforme (2010) and Like Someone in Love (2012) (both made notably outside Iran).

This sliding toward a more conventional mode of cinema becomes another sign of neomodernism’s demise. Some directors abandon their line of radical experimentation, trying to make their aesthetics more accessible for wider audiences by using more traditional narration (like Kiarostami, mentioned above) or TV-series formula (Bruno Dumont in the clearly self-parodistic Li’l Quinquin [2014]), or casting well-known actors (like Viggo Mortensen in Alonso’s Jauja [2014] or Juliette Binoche in Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915 [2013] and Slack Bay [2016]).

Finally, an unexpected and paradoxical threat to neomodernism’s identity and stability might derive from its own success. Growing festival acclaim (sealed by such achievements as the Palme d’or for Uncle Boonmee… in 2010, the Venice Golden Lion for Sokurov’s Faust in 2011 and the Silver Bear in Berlin for Tarr’s The Turin Horse earlier the same year) triggered an increased popularity of neomodern aesthetics among viewers, festival programmers, and directors. Consequently, more and more weight accrues to opinions such as that of Steven Shaviro, who criticized slow cinema on his blog as “a sort of default international style that signifies ‘serious art cinema’ without having to display any sort of originality or insight. ‘Contemplative cinema’ has become a cliché: it has outlived the time in which it was refreshing or inventive”.[39]

Will this emergence of “slow-kitsch” become the end of neomodern cinema? It is possible: every film movement of great importance (and in my opinion neomodernism is such a movement) finally reaches the point of mannerist self-pastiche (some examples of slow cinema parody can be observed already, as in the case of Sergio Caballero’s La distancia/The Distance [2014]). Nevertheless, a turning point like the one we are witnessing right now is perhaps the best moment to capture the movement’s specificity and examine it more carefully. This article is a modest attempt to identify the neomodernist movement in contemporary cinema, and its aim is only to inspire more detailed studies.



Badt Karin, Interview With Winner of Cannes Festival: Thai Director Weerasethakul Speaks About Reincarnation, Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/karin-badt/interview-with-winner-of_b_587179.html, date accessed 17 February 2015.

Bayraktari Armando, Durand André, Norwood-Witts Scott, Neomodern Manifesto. Paintings, quadri, tabelaux, https://www.durand-gallery.com/pages/manifesto, date accessed 17 February 2015.

Beumers Birgit and Condee Nancy (eds.), The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov (London and New York: I.B. Tauris) (2011).

Bourriaud Nicolas, The Death of Postmodernism and Emergence of Altermodernism, http://www.psfk.com/2009/02/the-death-of-postmodernism-and-emergence-of-altermodernism.html, date accessed 17 February 2015.

Bordwell David, „The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice”, Film Criticism 4:1 (1979).

Bordwell David, Narration in the Fiction Film (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press) (1985).

Deleuze Gilles, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson, Barbara Habberjam (London: Continuum) (2007).

Desser David, Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (1988).

Eco Umberto, Reflections on The Name of the Rose, trans. William Weaver (London: Minerva) (1994).

Elsaesser Thomas, „Stop/Motion”, in Between the Stilness and Motion: Film, Photography and Algorythms, ed. Eivind Røssaak, (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press) (2011).

Fokkema Douwe Wessel, Literary history, modernism, and postmodernism (Amsterdam and Philadelphia: J. Benjamins Pub. Co.) (1984).

Friedman Susan Stanford, „Periodizing Modernism: Postcolonial Modernities and the Space/Time Borders of Modernist Studies”, Modernism/modernity 13:3 (2006).

Gaudreault André, „Narration and Monstration in the Cinema”, Journal of Film and Video 39:2 (1987).

Grauer Victor, „Modernism/Postmodernism/Neomodernism”, Downtown Review 3:1-2, (1981-82).

Greenberg Clement, „Beginnings of Modernism” in Late Writings, ed. Robert C. Morgan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) (2003).

Han Qijun, „Melodrama as Vernacular Modernism in China: The Case of D. W. Griffith”, Scope: An Online Journal of Film and Television Studies 26 (2013).

Hansen Miriam, „The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism”, Modernism/modernity 6:3 (1999).

Horton Andrew (ed.), The Last Modernist: The Films of Theo Angelopoulos (Westport, Conn. : Greenwood Press) (1997).

Jaffe Ira, Slow movies: Countering the cinema of action (New York: Wallflower Press) (2014).

Jameson Frederic, „Postmodernism and Consumer Society”, in Postmodernism and Its Discontents, ed. E. Ann Kaplan (London: Verso) (1988).

Jencks Charles, The new moderns: From late to neo-modernism (New York: Rizzoli) (1990).

Kovács András Bálint, Screening modernism: European Art Cinema 1950-1980 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press) (2007).

Kovács András Bálint, The Cinema of Béla Tarr: The Circle Closes (London and New York: Wallflower Press) (2013).

Kupfer Peter, „Volga-Volga: “The Story of a Song,” Vernacular Modernism, and the Realization of Soviet Music”, The Journal of Musicology 30:4 (Fall 2013).

Lyotard Jean-François, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) (1984).

Menichini Marc, Interview: Apichatpong Weerasethakul Recalls His Past Films and Future Plans, Criticwire, http://blogs.indiewire.com/criticwire/interview-apichatpong-weerasethakul-recalls-his-past-films-and-future-plans, date accessed 17 February 2015.

Neale Steve, „Art Cinema as Institution”, Screen 1:22 (1981).

Orr John, Cinema and Modernity, (London: Polity Press) (1993).

Peranson Mark and Rithdee Kong, Ghost in the Machine: Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Letter to Cinema, Cinema Scope, http://cinema-scope.com/spotlight/spotlight-ghost-in-the-machine-apichatpong-weerasethakuls-letter-to-cinema/, date accessed 17 February 2015.

Romney Jonathan, „In Search of Lost Time”, Sight & Sound, 20:2 (2010).

Shaviro Steven, Slow Cinema Vs Fast Films, http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/?p=891, date accessed 17 February 2015.

Singer Ben, Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts (New York: Columbia University Press) (2001).

Song Hwee Lim, Tsai Ming-liang and a Cinema of Slowness (Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press) (2014).

Syska Rafał, Filmowy neomodernizm (Kraków: Avalon) (2014).

Szaniawski Jeriemi, The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox (New York: Wallflower Press/Columbia University Press) (2014).

Turim Maureen, „Cinemas of Modernity and Postmodernity”, in Zeitgeist in Babel: The Postmodernist Controversy, ed. Ingeborg Hoesterey (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (1991).

[1]    See John Orr, Cinema and Modernity, (London: Polity Press, 1993).

[2]    András Bálint Kovács, Screening modernism: European Art Cinema 1950-1980 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

[3]    Kovács, Screening modernism, p. 52.

[4]    Miriam Hansen, ‘The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism’, Modernism/modernity, vol. 6, no. 3 (1999), pp. 59-77.

[5]    It has been used to describe, among others, Soviet socialist realist cinema (Peter Kupfer, ‘Volga-Volga: “The Story of a Song,” Vernacular Modernism, and the Realization of Soviet Music’, The Journal of Musicology Vol. 30, No. 4 (Fall 2013), pp. 530-576.) and silent Chinese films (Qijun Han, ‘Melodrama as Vernacular Modernism in China: The Case of D. W. Griffith’, Scope: An Online Journal of Film and Television Studies, no. 26 (2013), pp. 18.).

[6]    Hansen, ‘The Mass Production of the Senses’, p. 60.

[7]    Ben Singer, Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), pp. 102-103.

[8]    Hansen, ‘The Mass Production of the Senses’, p. 68.

[9]    See David Bordwll, ‘The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice’, Film Criticism, vol. 4, no 1 (Fall 1979), pp. 56-64.  The expanded version of this text formed a basis for one of the chapters in Bordwell’s famous book-length study on narration. See David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985).

[10]  See Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson, Barbara Habberjam (London: Continuum, 2007).

[11]  Kovács, Screening modernism, p. 59.

[12]  Orr, Cinema and Modernity, p. 3.

[13]  Orr, Cinema and Modernity, p. 12.

[14]  Kovács, Screening modernism, p. 21.

[15]  Steve Neale, ‘Art Cinema as Institution’, Screen 1 (22) (1981), pp. 11-40.

[16]  Rafał Syska, Filmowy neomodernizm (Kraków: Avalon, 2014).

[17]  Jonathan Romney, ‘In Search of Lost Time’, Sight & Sound, vol. 20, no. 2 (2010), p. 43.

[18]  Thomas Elsaesser, ‘Stop/Motion’, in Eivind Røssaak (ed.), Between the Stilness and Motion: Film, Photography and Algorythms (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2011), p. 117.

[19]  See André Gaudreault, ‘Narration and Monstration in the Cinema’, Journal of Film and Video, Vol. 39, No. 2 (1987), pp. 29-36.

[20]  Maureen Turim, ‘Cinemas of Modernity and Postmodernity’, in Ingeborg Hoesterey (ed.), Zeitgeist in Babel: The Postmodernist Controversy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), p. 183.

[21]  For visual arts, see Armando Bayraktari, André Durand, Scott Norwood-Witts, Neomodern Manifesto. Paintings, quadri, tabelaux, accessed February 17, 2015, https://www.durand-gallery.com/pages/manifesto. For architecture, see Charles Jencks, The new moderns: From late to neo-modernism (New York: Rizzoli, 1990).

[22]  Victor Grauer, ‘Modernism/Postmodernism/Neomodernism’, Downtown Review, Vol. 3 Nos. 1&2, (1981-82), pp. 3-7.

[23]  Umberto Eco, Reflections on The Name of the Rose, trans. William Weaver (London: Minerva, 1994), especially pp. 67-68;  Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), especially chapter Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?, pp. 71-82.

[24]  Douwe Wessel Fokkema, Literary history, modernism, and postmodernism (Amsterdam and Philadelphia: J. Benjamins Pub. Co., 1984).

[25]  Turim, ‘Cinemas of Modernity and Postmodernity’, p. 182.

[26]  Andrew Horton (ed.), The Last Modernist: The Films of Theo Angelopoulos (Westport, Conn. : Greenwood Press, 1997).

[27]  Frederic Jameson, ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society’, in E. Ann Kaplan (ed.), Postmodernism and Its Discontents (London: Verso, 1988), pp. 13-29.

[28]  Kovács, Screening modernism, p. 140.

[29]  Clement Greenberg, ‘Beginnings of Modernism’ in Late Writings, ed. Robert C. (Morgan Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), p. 35.

[30]  Kovács, Screening modernism, p. 217.

[31]  Dyan Desser in his seminar work used the category “modernism” (as opposed to classicism) to describe New Wave movies of Nagisa Oshima, Shohei Imamura and others. Dyan Desser, Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988).

[32]  Marc Menichini, Interview: Apichatpong Weerasethakul Recalls His Past Films and Future Plans, Criticwire,

     accessed February 17, 2015, http://blogs.indiewire.com/criticwire/interview-apichatpong-weerasethakul-recalls-his-past-films-and-future-plans

[33]  Mark Peranson and Kong Rithdee, Ghost in the Machine: Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Letter to Cinema, Cinema Scope, accessed February 17, 2015, http://cinema-scope.com/spotlight/spotlight-ghost-in-the-machine-apichatpong-weerasethakuls-letter-to-cinema/

[34]  Karin Badt, Interview With Winner of Cannes Festival: Thai Director Weerasethakul Speaks About Reincarnation,

     Huffington Post, accessed February 17, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/karin-badt/interview-with-winner-of_b_587179.html

[35]  Susan Stanford Friedman, ‘Periodizing Modernism: Postcolonial Modernities and the Space/Time Borders of Modernist Studies’, Modernism/modernity, vol. 13, no 3 (2006), p. 426.

[36]  Nicolas Bourriaud, The Death of Postmodernism and Emergence of Altermodernism, accessed February 17, 2015, http://www.psfk.com/2009/02/the-death-of-postmodernism-and-emergence-of-altermodernism.html

[37]  Ira Jaffe, Slow movies: Countering the cinema of action (New York: Wallflower Press, 2014).

[38]  András Bálint Kovács, The Cinema of Béla Tarr: The Circle Closes (London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2013); Song Hwee Lim, Tsai Ming-liang and a Cinema of Slowness (Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, 2014); Birgit Beumers and Nancy Condee (eds.), The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2011); Jeremi Szaniawski, The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox (New York: Wallflower Press/Columbia University Press, 2014); Only Abbas Kiarostami enjoyed greater attention from film scholars with first monographs being published already in the early 2000s.

[39]  Steven Shaviro, Slow Cinema Vs Fast Films, accessed February 17, 2015, http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/?p=891

Miłosz Stelmach is a PHD candidate at the Institute of Audiovisual Arts at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. His scholarly interests include the history of cinematic modernism, cinema of the Communist bloc, and transformations of contemporary art cinema. Currently, he is working on his dissertation on late modernist tendencies in Polish cinema of the 1970s and 1980s. He is also an editor of “EKRANy” [“SCREENs”], a scholarly journal on film and audiovisual culture.

Mexican Minimalist Cinema: Articulating the (Trans)national

Bolesław Racięski

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 118-131

Bolesław Racięski

Jagiellonian University


Mexican Minimalist Cinema: Articulating the (Trans)national



In the article I aim to identify and analyse the specific elements of the Mexican minimalistic cinema (minimalismo mexicano) in both transnational and national contexts.

Mexican minimalistic cinema is a relatively new phenomenon that arose in Mexico around the year 2002 and is now widely regarded as one of the most important phenomena in the world cinema. It is often considered to be a subdivision of slow cinema, since it utilises similar formal and narrative devices. While the researchers generally focus on the universal, supranational aspects of the slow films, I intend to expose how the Mexican filmmakers make use of the aesthetic and storytelling devices deriving from the slow cinema to comment on Mexican cultural traditions, current social and political issues, notions of national mythologies and history.

The first part of the article focuses on the category of „transnationality” in the context of film studies, and the basic characteristics of Mexican minimalist cinema as the transnational cinema. The last part is devoted to the analyses of „Heli” (2013, dir. Amat Escalante) and „Lake Tahoe” (2009, dir. Fernando Eimbcke) – the two examples of Mexican minimalist films that, despite their transnational appeal, are deeply rooted in national preoccupations.

Key words: transnationality, Mexican cinema, Amat Escalante, Fernando Eimbcke, slow cinema, minimalism



 In the following article I identify and analyse the elements of Mexican minimalist cinema (minimalismo mexicano) in both transnational and national contexts. The most interesting aspect of the topic appears to be the question of how Mexican minimalist films utilize stylistic and storytelling strategies that are commonly identified with the transnational phenomenon of slow cinema[1] in order to comment on strictly Mexican cultural traditions, current social and political issues, the notions of national mythologies, and cinematic traditions.

I start by explaining how I understand the category of transnationality and why it seems fitting to use it in the examination and interpretation of Mexican minimalist films. The next part of the text focuses on the basic characteristics of Mexican minimalism as transnational cinema and simultaneously constitutes a revision of the most relevant characteristics of slow cinema. The last part is devoted to the analysis of two representative examples of minimalismo mexicano: Heli (2013) by Amat Escalante and Lake Tahoe (2009) by Fernando Eimbcke. These two movies, despite their transnational appeal, are rooted in national preoccupations and encompass two extremities of a wide spectrum of Mexican minimalist cinema. Lake Tahoe is rather comical in tone and its national concerns are hidden underneath an apparently simple narrative. On the other hand, Heli tells a grim and shocking story, which is clearly engaged with the current problems of Mexico.

The term “minimalismo mexicano” appeared in Mexican film criticism at the beginning of the 21st century, mainly thanks to the artistic success of such filmmakers as Carlos Reygadas (e.g. Japón, 2002), Amat Escalante (e.g. Sangre, 2005), Enrique Rivero (e.g. Parque vía, 2008), Nicolás Pereda (e.g. Perpetuum Mobile, 2009) and Fernando Eimbcke (e.g. Temporada de patos, 2004)[2]. This term does not determine a clearly structured film movement, but mainly refers to directors’ admiration for aesthetic minimalism and nondramatic narratives deprived of climaxes and focused primarily on an individual.

It is also possible to use this term in the context of the production process: the discussed films were made for a (relatively) small amount of money and mainly feature amateur actors and unknown beginners. At the same time, it is noteworthy that—as observed by Germán Martínez Martínez—the discussed term is not homogenous and refers to films of comedic character (Eimbcke’s oeuvre) as well as to those which penetrate the dark side of human existence[3]. Nevertheless, their clearly visible common features undoubtedly allow for a conceptualization of these individual films as a group. The discussed films are created on the margins of the dynamically developing Mexican film industry and—even if they sometimes appeal to the wider audience (e.g. Temporada de patos, 2004, Fernando Eimbcke)—they are mostly screened at international festivals of art cinema.

The question of ‘transantionality’

In the article “On the Plurality of Cinematic Transnationalism,” Mette Hjort accurately observes that this particular term is surrounded by an “aura of indisputable legitimacy” (by virtue of widespread „transnational arrangements in the world of contemporary filmmaking, and the undeniable transnational dimensions of earlier periods of cinematic production”), which, however, threatens to blur the definition and, consequently, render the term useless as a methodological tool. Hjort claims that „the term <<transnational>> does little to advance our thinking (…) if it can mean anything and everything”[4]. Will Higbee and Song Hwee Lim remark that the term ‘transnational cinema’ is sometimes employed in order to talk about productions created as a result of cooperation between filmmakers from different parts of the world; however, in this case the crucial aesthetic, political, and economic consequences of such cooperation are neglected[5]. Deborah Shaw also says that the problematic term “has often been used without any definition or explanation of what it meant”[6]. The prevalence and the inaccurateness of the term made some researchers question its usefulness in film studies[7].

Due to the threat of methodological uncertainty, it is helpful to consider M. Hjort’s proposal to distinguish between strongly transnational cinema and weakly transnational cinema. She writes that a “given cinematic case would qualify as strongly transnational, rather than only weakly so, if it could be shown to involve a number of specific transnational elements related to levels of production, distribution, reception, and the cinematic works themselves”[8]. Another division is the one distinguishing marked transnationality (the audience pays attention to elements of a film which prompt thinking about its transnational character) and unmarked transnationality (for example, transnationality is not visible until the production process has been analysed)[9]. The present article lacks space for a complex research on transnational aspects of production, distribution, and exhibition of minimalismo mexicano, since it is the analysis of the film text itself which lies at the centre of my attention. Nonetheless, it is important to reflect briefly upon it, in order to demonstrate that many Mexican minimalist films involve forms of the unmarked transnationality and are frequently close to being considered as strongly transnational.

Mexican minimalist cinema as the transnational cinema: production, distribution, exhibition

In terms of the production process, Mexican minimalism is largely dependent on foreign funds. Neoliberal transformations which started to take place in the national film industry at the end of the 1980s led to a situation in which the state virtually stopped supporting non-commercial films. Independent production companies gradually started to emerge (in the middle of the 1990s the art cinema market in Mexico was small, but relatively stable[10]), which, at the beginning of the current century, commenced with the financial support offered by international festivals. Carlos Reygadas and Amat Escalante’s projects are backed by the Hubert Bals Fund (Rotterdam International Film Festival), which also helps other Mexican filmmakers, such as Nicolás Pereda. On the other hand, Fernando Eimbcke was supported by the Sundance Film Festival when he was working on Lake Tahoe. In search for funds, filmmakers take abundant advantage of the possibilities offered in cooperation with other countries, e.g. Amat Escalante’s Heli is a coproduction of entities from four countries, namely Mexico, the Netherlands, France and Germany[11]. Even if certain state mechanisms created to support ambitious artistic productions have been introduced in Mexico (FOPROCINE fund, tax exemption for film investors), many authors of minimalismo are still forced to look for funds around the world.

If a film has been produced, the creators are usually confronted with an inability to release it in Mexico. As the critic Jorge Ayala Blanco observes, the total number of 75 produced films per year is inconsequential if only 45 of them are ever released to cinemas[12]. The director Felipe Cazals compares the situation of the national cinema to “an airport which is deprived of a landing strip”: films are numerous, but few of them are later shown on the big screen to national audiences[13]. As remarked by Ayala Blanco, the production of Mexican cinema is “the worst business in the world” as recovering the money is still almost impossible[14]. Therefore, minimalismo directors have always focused on the international release, which means that films premier at international festivals (Cannes, Berlinale, Sundance, Rotterdam) in order to get foreign distribution firms (Media Luna and others) and reach international audiences. They frequently appear in Mexican cinemas at the end of their journey and in a minimal number of copies, screened mostly in the Cineteca Nacionál complex.

Hence, minimalismo mexicano has undoubtedly a transnational character in terms of production, distribution, and exhibition: the films are often created thanks to international financial support with the goal of reaching audiences around the world.

Mexican minimalist cinema as transnational cinema: style and narrative

The analysis of formal conventions and themes of the discussed films reveals various common characteristics which allow them to qualify them as representatives of the same cinematic phenomenon. Regarding the formal features of the film, there are visibly reduced means of expression: a limited number of editing cuts, deliberately arranged static takes, the absence of soundtrack (which often appears only during the end credits), simplified blocking, location shooting, and inconspicuous lighting.

In regards to narrative, Mexican minimalist films usually focus on individuals, frequently lonely and excluded from mainstream social life and consumed by a poignant fatalism[15] . The stories told by the creators of minimalismo are extremely slow and frequently deprived of clear act breaks, plot twists and climaxes. De-dramatizing techniques dominate, such as pauses and long moments of stillness.

Even such a superficial description of the basic aspects of minimalismo allows it to be associated with slow cinema: a transnational phenomenon, represented by directors from various countries (e.g. China, Argentina, Hungary, Thailand), who make their films thanks to the support of foreign funds, and aim to screen them at international festivals of art cinema. Moira Weigel characterizes slow films as follows: “their narratives are nondramatic or non-existent. The scripts are minimal and repetitive, with little dialogue. They unfold in long takes, captured by still or nearly still cameras. Often the figures in the frames stay still themselves”[16]. The Mexican film movement parallels the characteristics of modernist minimalism, described by András Bálint Kovács, whose contemporary manifestations the scholar finds in slow films[17]. Matthew Flanagan writes about the themes the creators touch upon: “Many individual works by these filmmakers turn their attention to marginal peoples (low-paid manual labourers, poor farmers, the unemployed and dispossessed, petty criminals and drug addicts) subsisting in remote or invisible places”[18]. It is worth emphasising that many scholars researching the phenomenon of slow cinema devote their attention to the authors of Mexican minimalism, mainly Amat Escalante and Carlos Reygadas[19].

Therefore, even if particular representative films of minimalismo mexicano do not fulfil the conditions of transnationality in terms of production, their formal features and themes can easily be identified with a phenomenon of international character. Escalante and Reygadas (as well as Rivera, Eimbcke, Pereda, Yulene Olaizola, and others) use almost all cinematic techniques that are currently treated as artistic and cherished by programmers of international film festivals. They employ codes easily understood by audiences familiar with slow cinema. As a result, when it comes to the reception and critical interpretations of these films, they are commonly situated in the well-established art cinema traditions, compared to the (mostly European) masters of art cinema, and read as touching upon universal thematic motifs (such as notions of spirituality, religiousness, search for transcendence). As noted by Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover, “in mainstream film criticism, films are often lauded as universal stories in order to reduce the threat of unpleasurable difference”[20]. Although I agree with R. Galt and K. Schoonover, who argue that the “move toward the universal does not always have to be simple or naive” and “the problem of universality in art cinema is too complicated to be addressed by a simple dismissal”[21], the most interesting approach seems to be the one which shows how these transnational filmic strategies have been used to articulate the themes and problems directly related to the cultural circle in which the analysed films were made.

The cultural specificity of Mexican minimalist cinema

Minimalismo mexicano is close to being considered as strongly transnational in M. Hjort`s terms: it undoubtedly has a transnational character in regards to production, distribution, exhibition, and formal features. Nevertheless, it fulfils M. Hjort’s condition, which is “a resistance to globalization as cultural homogenization; and a commitment to ensuring that certain economic realities associated with filmmaking do not eclipse the pursuit of aesthetic, artistic, social, and political values”[22]. Mexican minimalists are mainly astute and ruthless commentators of local reality, and only later are they representatives of the transnational phenomenon of art cinema.

It is worth stressing that I perceive the application of filmic strategies and themes associated with slow cinema by Mexican directors as a parallel process and not as a process simply resulting from contact with the achievements of the slow cinema world masters. Associated with slow films, the anthropological turn of cinema, i.e. focus on an individual, started in Latin America in the 1990s and was partly a result of the search for new paradigms of national identity, different from the clearly political “third cinema”, which was concerned mainly with the collective[23]. This minimalistic, contemplative style is used nowadays by directors from the biggest film industries of Latin America. Hence, it is not surprising that it has become an exquisite language used to talk about Mexico. The director Michel Lipkes remarks that “in such a baroque and anarchistic country like Mexico, the act of contemplation is the only way to stop for a moment and to ask some bold questions about the shape of the world surrounding us”[24].

Minimalismo is at the same time engaged with the national traditions and politics of Mexican audio-visual culture. This cinematic phenomenon enters a polemic both against the excessive aestheticization and ideological simplifications of the so-called época de oro, i.e. the golden age of Mexican cinema (dating back to the 1940s, but still present in the popular discourse), as well as elitism and artificiality of both telenovelas and the latest commercial cinema inspired by Hollywood. Minimalismo—paradoxically, in the face of the lack of the local genre cinema’s foreign successes—is popular at festivals (thanks to the use of transnational filmic strategies of art cinema) and is currently the most important ambassador of Mexican cinema.

In the following part of the article, a brief analysis of two Mexican minimalist films is conducted. Its aim is to demonstrate how filmmakers use the transnational style and narrative conventions associated with slow cinema in order to engage with Mexican cultural traditions and current social and political issues. Lake Tahoe and Heli have been chosen because they can be undoubtedly considered as transnational in terms of production, distribution, and filmic strategies, and they represent two extremities of a wide spectrum of Mexican minimalist cinema. In the first film, national preoccupations are hidden underneath an apparently banal anecdote. On the other hand, Heli is clearly concerned with the current problems of Mexico, but only concretization and exposition of relevant contexts reveal the full dimension of its commitment.

Lake Tahoe: the painful transition

The narrative of Fernando Eimbcke’s second film is extremely modest: it centres upon Juan, a teenager who crashes his car into a lamp post. Most of the film shows the protagonist wandering through the dreamy town of Progreso, located on Yucatán Peninsula, in search of parts necessary for the repair of the vehicle. The story becomes more than a banal anecdote only when the audience learns that Juan is dealing with a more serious problem as he mourns his recently deceased father. In order to show this particular story, Eimbcke employs a host of conventions associated with the slow cinema. For instance, the screenplay withholds basic information about the main character, sound has only a practical function, and the long and static shots linger on mundane landscapes.

Lake Tahoe constitutes an intimate story, mainly focused on personal experiences of the protagonist going through a trauma. Its simplicity allows it to be read as a universal story which appeals to audiences all over the world. However, in the article “Beyond Europe: On Parametric Transcendence”[25], Mark Betz argues that, as Joanne Hershfield puts it, “critic must pay particular attention to the geo-cultural context of the circulation and appropriation of art cinema; in other words, to local knowledges and histories”[26]. The topic of Eimbcke’s film, a child struggling with the absence of a parent, is not indifferent to the cultural context in which Lake Tahoe was created. Quite the opposite; this is one of the most important themes appearing in Mexican culture in the first decade of the 21st century[27]. It is strictly related to the transformations in the structure of Mexican society caused by the neoliberal reforms that the authorities have been gradually introducing since the 1980s. A rapidly decreasing number of jobs, lower salaries and disastrous working conditions led to a situation in which one family member, usually a father, is forced to emigrate for economic reasons. It is important to say that these particular changes were accompanied by an epoch-making political transformation: in 2000—the first time in 71 years—the president Vincente Fox Quesada from PAN (Partido Acción Nacional) was elected from a political party other than PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional). But the period of so-called “democratic transition” turned out to be full of ambivalence and contradictions. The country failed to generate the expected economic growth and the new democratic institutions did not fulfil the expectations, burdened with the legacy of the authoritarian regime[28]. The cultural trope of a growing child and absent parent is often interpreted by researchers not only as a reflection of a given social problem, but also as a tool allowing for an examination of the society at a difficult moment of transition, struggling with the challenges of the free-market economy and departure from the protectionist model[29].

The adopted interpretation of the theme is also rooted in the history of Mexican cinema. The authorities, attempting in the period of época de oro to propagate the foundations of national identity with the help of state-produced films, encouraged audiences to interpret cinematic families and father figures as metaphors for, consecutively, society and the government[30]. In the subsequent years, rapid social transformations were frequently reflected in the situation of film families (e.g. En la trampa, 1978, Raúl Araiza[31]). It is worth mentioning that a careful analysis of Lake Tahoe shows that Juan is only one of the many young inhabitants of Progreso who grow up in single-parent families. The intensification of the trope allows Juan’s story to be treated as a synecdoche of a bigger problem.

Juan is a teenager on the verge of adult life, which in the context of Mexican cinema—as remarked by I.M. Sánchez Prado—is a type of “transition in which success means becoming part of the bourgeois mainstream and failure results in being an outcast”.[32] In spite of making the story of Lake Tahoe centred on the popular topic of crossing a threshold, the film constantly postpones culmination. In this film, duration, monotony, and lack of movement replace action, dynamics, and variability.

Strategies associated with this particular approach are clearly visible in the narrative as the protagonist wanders from garage to garage. A garage girl only pretends to look for an indispensable part, a boy who promises to help is not too keen on fixing the car, preferring to demonstrate the arcana of martial arts.

The aforementioned state of suspension, which delays progress and a satisfying conclusion, is constructed with the help of stylistic and aesthetic strategies, such as long takes and de-dramatization. The exposition of time, typical for slow cinema, liberates the film from the necessity of causality (characteristic of mainstream cinema): it is the permanence and duration which become the centre of interest for the camera. This impression is favoured by the repetitiveness of takes (when Juan returns to the crashed car a few times, the audience follows his path every single time), but also, paradoxically, by time ellipses in the form of black-outs. If black-outs may be perceived as a culturally rooted, universal representation of flowing time—typical rather for classical narration than the narration in slow cinema—their subversive use by Eimbcke underlines the state of suspension. When the image fades in again it is difficult for the audience to decide how much time has passed or to notice any visible change in the situation of the characters (with the possible exception of space they are in). The relation between editing and the composition of the frame is also interesting: two separate frames are often juxtaposed so that Juan is located in different spaces, while he holds the same position in front of the camera. On a purely visual level, the change of the spatial situation is not correlated with the movement of the protagonist.

All these strategies are to create a mode of narration which at the beginning may seem incomprehensible and enigmatic, but provides an experience of extended on-screen duration. Juan’s coming of age and his introduction to the neoliberal order have been suspended, whereas a capitalist requirement of constant progression has been replaced by a structure of eternal return.

Eimbcke’s film—if read in the wide context of 21st century Mexican culture, local knowledge, history, and cultural codes—unveils a dialogic potential. It is another voice joining the debate on the topic of the condition of Mexican society, problematizing mainly the question of the abandonment of citizens by the welfare state, and the contradictions and ambiguities of the democratic transition process. The coherent and multi-layered vision presented in Lake Tahoe reveals the tensions resulting from the inability to neither fulfil the requirement of progress nor to restore the previous system. Eimbcke constructs these meanings with the help of filmic strategies associated with slow cinema; the experience of duration on screen replaces a classical narrative, focused primarily on a series of events linked to each other by a cause and effect relation. Lake Tahoe addresses a topic which is culturally and nationally relevant, but examines it with the use of filmic strategies relatively unfamiliar to the local cinema.

 Heli: the horror of drug violence

Heli, the eponymous young protagonist of the third film by Amat Escalante, lives with his father, wife, twelve-year old sister Estela, and a newly-born baby in a small town in the state of Guanajuato. As a result of tragic events, Heli’s family gets involved in the affairs of a local drug cartel, operating under the cover of state Special Forces. The hero’s father dies, his sister gets abducted, and Heli undergoes a series of cruel tortures. After returning home, he attempts to find young Estela with the help of the local police.

In Heli, differently than in Lake Tahoe, the audience easily finds information on the spatiotemporal context of the film. The frames feature national flags and symbols, a public servant speaks to the people, the presence of police and the army shows the functioning of the authorities, whereas TV news bulletins report events in the country. Despite the fact that the story, as suggested by the title, is focused on an individual, “the theme of a nation emerges” because “relevant forms of aboutness are flagged or foregrounded”.[33] At the same time, the director chooses a theme also well-known outside of Mexico, which undoubtedly facilitated the fundraising (as mentioned above, the film is a coproduction of four countries) as well as its distribution (and its election as a Mexican Oscar candidate).

Thanks to Sangre and Los bastardos, Amat Escalante has become the leading Mexican minimalist, associated by critics and researchers with slow cinema, and rewarded at international festivals of art cinema. Surprisingly, the first half of Heli, until the cartel’s attack on the protagonist’s house, resembles a narrative characteristic of mainstream productions. The audience receives sufficient information to get engaged in the fate of the characters, a melodramatic plot emerges; Heli’s and his family’s dangerous situation is obvious for the viewers

If in Lake Tahoe minimalist strategies dictate the structure of the whole film, in Heli they are used more sparingly. Not until the characters’ lives are disturbed does Escalante radically modify the mainstream conventions. The audience expects to see a police investigation or sensational stories on the authorities’ corruption, yet they are confronted with a complete de-dramatization and an absolute elimination of traditional methods of building suspense. Making use of the knowledge of genre conventions seems useless and formulating hypotheses about cause and effect narrative relations is extremely difficult. Peripheral information starts to dominate in the story whereas the investigation does not progress, even when Heli provides the police officers with additional information. Finally, Estela returns home, but the audience will never know why the cartel let her leave. Escalante returns to the principles of minimalism by diluting the story, avoiding obvious solutions and climaxes. A scene in which Heli and Beto (the protagonist’s sister’s love interest) are being tortured is the most haunting departure from mainstream cinema conventions. Escalante abandons any ellipses, whereas the static camera captures the suffering of the protagonists as well as the indifferent faces of their executioners and the children watching the bloodbath.

Heli, similarly to Lake Tahoe, addresses current social problems which have been represented in Mexican culture many times. Drug cartels constitute a challenge with which the authorities and the citizens have to struggle incessantly. It is important though to underline the fact that the scale of confrontation started growing rapidly in 2006 when the president Felipe Calderón Hinojosa assumed power. The most important part of his program was to eliminate the cartels with the help of great military forces equipped with numerous prerogatives that were previously available only to the police. The number of victims in this drug war increased steadily to a total of 100,000 during Calderón`s term; this number includes soldiers, police officers, gang members, and innocent civilians[34].

The war on drugs has become a theme of many Mexican and Hollywood films, which show it in different ways, e.g. as a bitter farce (Inferno, 2010, Luis Estrada), usually using easily identifiable mainstream conventions. Escalante enhances popular methods of talking about the drug crisis by employing strategies characteristic of slow cinema[35]. Hence, he provides an original language which uncovers meanings normally invisible for the audience.

As has been already mentioned, Heli undermines the hypotheses that viewers create based on their familiarity with the conventions of the classical film narrative. Distorting the practices of mainstream cinema equates to a departure from the philosophy related to it; i.e. the belief that reality can be effortlessly understood and conceptualized (using, for example, genre conventions) as a coherent system of cause and effect relations, and the characters’ motivation can be clearly identified. The world of Heli negates these assumptions. Employing minimalist filmic strategies, the director depicts the country consumed by a drug war as a chaotic labyrinth from which it is impossible to escape. The differentiation between good and evil becomes dubious; an unequivocal identification of the sides to the conflict is impossible as there is no clear division between police officers and criminals. The story itself escapes any conventionalized structure. Among all film and media representations of the Mexican war on drugs, Heli might be the most moving and the closest to depicting the real chaos which reigns in some parts of the country. Escalante undermines the thesis represented by many researchers of the problem, convinced that it is only a temporary situation, whereas the country is striving for success. According to this particular narrative, as argued by Marcelo Bergman, it would be sufficient to resolve particular issues for the problem to become easier to solve.[36] The world presented in Heli is too enigmatic and elusive to make the convincing identification of the problem even possible.

Escalante also objects to the model of presenting drug violence in the media, based mainly on sensationalism, dynamic editing and visual attractiveness. The media corporations transform the coverage of the drug war into a spectacle. Escalante refers to the problem by showing in one of the scenes from Heli a fragment from a news program in which the reporters and the police officers present the decapitated heads of three drug cartel members. The scene of Heli and Beto undergoing a series of tortures also depicts violence literally, but Escalante avoids any attempts to make it more familiar and bearable with the help of a commentary (mandatory for all news bulletins) or to bring it to the level of a purely visual attraction (like the mainstream cinema often does). The opening scene is shot by using a formal device frequently employed by contemporary art cinema directors and identified by André Bazin with “representing a realistic continuum of space and time”[37]: the long take shows the heads of unconscious victims of the cartel, allowing the audience to analyse the frame and discover disturbing details. With the help of stylistic strategies associated with slow cinema, Escalante approaches a representation of the real nature of drug violence which is not mediated by any mainstream techniques. This conscious de-aestheticization not only results in the disturbing fusion of violence and mundane life, but also constitutes a certain ethical gesture. It restores the original horror of the drug war, often replaced in the media discourse by superficial sensationalism.

Transnational strategies allow Escalante to appeal to audiences around the world and to achieve his position of one of the most important contemporary art cinema directors. Paying particular attention to the geo-cultural context reveals that Heli utilizes these filmic strategies to provide a seminal method of exploring of Mexican reality. They also serve to present a pronounced commentary on the social situation and the popular models of its representation.


The aim of this article was to demonstrate how minimalismo mexicano directors combine the transnational with the national. The films chosen as examples, Amat Escalante`s Heli and Fernando Eimbcke`s Lake Tahoe, involve transnational elements related to production (international funding), distribution, and reception (screenings at the international festivals of art cinema), while also demonstrating the affinity with filmic strategies of the transnational phenomenon of slow cinema (mostly by utilizing similar formal and narrative conventions).

I consider it important to take a closer look at the geo-cultural context of the examined films, as well as local histories and references. Only by committing to this method it is possible to discover and demonstrate that the studied examples are deeply concerned with national preoccupations. Lake Tahoe can be read as a movie touching upon the problem of the abandonment of citizens by the welfare state, as well as notions of painful political transformation. Heli addresses current social problems that are often depicted in mainstream cinema, but does so by utilizing filmic strategies that allow for new insights into Mexican reality. Both movies (as well as other representatives of minimalismo mexicano mentioned in the article, but not analysed here) utilize formal and narrative features of slow cinema and provide a language that is relatively foreign to the Mexican cinematic tradition, yet enhance it with a more insightful means of exploring strictly national issues.



Bergman Marcelo, „La violencia en México: algunas aproximaciones académicas” Desacatos, 40 (2012).

Bordwell David, Poetics of Cinema, (London and New York: Routledge) ( 2012).

Carmen Elisa Gómez-Gómez, Familia y cine mexicano en el marco del neoliberalismo. Estudio crítico de Por la libre, Perfume de violetas, Amar te duele y Temporada de patos, unpublished PhD thesis, The Ohio State University (2009).

Cazals Felipe, „Un aeropuerto sin suficientes pistas”, Cine Toma 5:28 (2013).

Falicov Tamara L., “Migrating From South to North: The Role of Film Festivals in Funding and Shaping Global South Film and Video”, in Locating Migrating Media, ed. Greg Elmer, Charles H. Davis, Janine Marchessault and John McCullough (Lanham, Boulder, New York, Toronto, Plymouth: Lexington Books) (2010).

Flanagan Matthew, Slow Cinema: Temporality and Style in Contemporary Art and Experimental Film, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Exeter (2012).

Galt Rosalind and Schoonover Karl, “Introduction: The Impurity of Art Cinema”, in Global Art Cinema, ed. Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (2010).

Hershfield Joanne, “Nation and post-nationalism: the contemporary modernist films of Carlos Reygadas” Transnational Cinemas, Vol. 5, No. 1 (2014).

Hjort Mette “On the plurality of cinematic transnationalism”, in World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives, ed. Nataša Ďurovičová and Kathleen Newman (New York and London: Routledge) (2009).

Hjort Mette, „Themes of Nation”, in Cinema and Nation, ed. Mette Hjort and Scott McKenzie (London and New York: Routledge) (2005).

Kovács, András Bálint, Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema, 1950-1980, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press (2007).

La Otra, http://www.laotrarevista.com/2011/01/jorge-ayala-blanco-falacias-del-cine-mexicano/, date accessed 17 August 2016.

Lipińska Urszula, “Meksykańska (nowa) fala”, Kino 06 (2012) (The article accessed at: http://archiwum.stopklatka.pl/news/kino-meksykanska-nowa-fala, 13 August 2016).

Los Angeles Times, http://articles.latimes.com/2012/dec/01/world/la-fg-wn-mexico-calderon-cartels-20121130, date accessed: 01.09.2016.

Mark Betz, ”Beyond Europe: On Parametric Transcendence”, in Global Art Cinema, ed. Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (2010).

Martínez Martínez Germán, “¿Minimalismo mexicano?”, Icónica 0 (2012).

Ramírez Berg Charles, Cinema of Solitude. A critical Study of Mexican Film, 1967-1983, (Austin:

University of Texas Press) (1992).

Robles-Cereceres Oscar Fernando, En el nombre de la madre reconfiguraciones de la subjetividad femenina, la familia mexicana y la identidad nacional en el cine de Maria Novaro, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Arizona (2002).

Rufinelli Jorge, „Nuevas señas de identidad en el cine de América Latina. Notas sobre cómo el cine épico devino en minimalista”, in Tendencias del cine iberoamericano en el nuevo milenio: Argentina, Brasil, España y México, ed. Juan Carlos Vargas (Guadalajara: Universidad de Guadalajara) (2011).

Russek Dan, „From Buñuel to Eimbcke: Orphanhood in Recent Mexican Cinema”, in Representing History, Class, and Gender in Spain and Latin America, ed. Carolina Rocha and Georgia Seminet (New York: Palgrave McMillan) (2012).

Sánchez Prado Ignacio M, „Innocence Interrupted: Neoliberalism and the End of Childhood in Recent Mexican Cinema”, in Representing History, Class, and Gender in Spain and Latin America, ed. Carolina Rocha and Georgia Seminet (New York: Palgrave McMillan) (2012).

Sánchez Prado Ignacio M, Screening Neoliberalism: Transforming Mexican Cinema 1988-2012, (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press) (2014).

Shaw Deborah, “Deconstructing and Reconstructing Transnational Cinema”, in Contemporary Hispanic Cinema: Interrogating the Transnational in Spanish and Latin American Film, ed. Stephanie Dennison (Woodbridge: Tamesis) (2013).

Syska Rafał, Filmowy neomodernizm, (Kraków: Avalon) (2014).

Weigel Moira, “Slow Wars”, n+1, Spring 2016.

Will Higbee and Lim Song Hwee, “Concepts of transnational cinema”, Transnational Cinemas 1:1 (2010).



[1] It is important to remember that the films commonly identified with slow cinema have also been conceptualized as, for example, Contemporary Contemplative Cinema (Harry Tuttle, http://unspokencinema.blogspot.com), or neomodernism (Rafał Syska, Filmowy neomodernizm, Kraków: Avalon, 2014). The different terms used among critics and scholars indicate the importance of the different characteristics of the film. I use the term slow cinema because I consider it to be the most encompassing, while the subtle differences between other conceptualizations are not relevant for the present reflection.

[2] Germán Martínez Martínez, “¿Minimalismo mexicano?”, Icónica 0 (2012), p.15.

[3] Germán Martínez Martínez, p. 17.

[4] Mette Hjort, “On the plurality of cinematic transnationalism”, in World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives, ed. Nataša Ďurovičová and Kathleen Newman (New York and London: Routledge, 2009), p. 12.

[5] Will Higbee and Song Hwee Lim, “Concepts of transnational cinema”, Transnational Cinemas 1:1 (2010) p. 10.

[6]  Deborah Shaw, “Deconstructing and Reconstructing Transnational Cinema”, in Contemporary Hispanic Cinema: Interrogating the Transnational in Spanish and Latin American Film, ed. Stephanie Dennison (Woodbridge: Tamesis, 2013)  p. 49.

[7] See Will Higbee and Song Hwee Lim, p. 10.

[8] Mette Hjort, p. 13.

[9] See Mette Hjort, pp. 13-14.

[10] See Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado, Screening Neoliberalism: Transforming Mexican Cinema 1988-2012, (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press) (2014), p. 197.

[11]  The influence of investors on the final shape of a film is another interesting topic, yet irrelevant to the present reflection. Researchers interested in the topic prove that film sponsors often require that the creators of artistic films fulfil certain aesthetic and thematic conditions which are supposed to facilitate festival promotion and international distribution. See e.g.: Tamara L. Falicov, “Migrating from South to North: The Role of Film Festivals in Funding and Shaping Global South Film and Video”, in Locating Migrating Media, ed. Greg Elmer, Charles H. Davis, Janine Marchessault and John McCullough (Lanham, Boulder, New York, Toronto, Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2010).

[12] See La Otra, http://www.laotrarevista.com/2011/01/jorge-ayala-blanco-falacias-del-cine-mexicano/, date accessed 17 August 2016.

[13] Felipe Cazals, „Un aeropuerto sin suficientes pistas”, Cine Toma 5:28 (2013), pp.66-69.

[14] The new tax incentive (EFICINE 189, which replaced EFICINE 226) supports also distribution of the films, but it is still too early to validate its impact on the Mexican film industry.

[15] See e.g. Parque vía, Sangre, or Malaventura (2011, M. Lipkes).

[16] Moira Weigel, “Slow Wars”, n+1, Spring 2016, p. 65.

[17] András Bálint Kovács, Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema, 1950-1980, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), pp. 140-141.

[18] Matthew Flanagan, Slow Cinema: Temporality and Style in Contemporary Art and Experimental Film, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Exeter, p.118.

[19] See e.g. Rafał Syska, Filmowy neomodernizm, (Kraków: Avalon, 2014).

[20] Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover, “Introduction: The Impurity of Art Cinema”, in Global Art Cinema, ed. Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 10.

[21] Ibid., p. 10.

[22] Mette Hjort, p. 15.

[23] See Jorge Ruffinelli, „Nuevas señas de identidad en el cine de América Latina. Notas sobre cómo el cine épico devino en minimalista”, in Tendencias del cine iberoamericano en el nuevo milenio: Argentina, Brasil, España y México, ed. Juan Carlos Vargas (Guadalajara: Universidad de Guadalajara, 2011), pp. 127-128.

[24] Urszula Lipińska, “Meksykańska (nowa) fala”, Kino 06 (2012) (The article accessed at: http://archiwum.stopklatka.pl/news/kino-meksykanska-nowa-fala, 13 August 2016).

[25] Mark Betz, “Beyond Europe: On Parametric Transcendence”, in Global Art Cinema, ed. Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 40-41

[26] Joanne Hershfield, “Nation and post-nationalism: the contemporary modernist films of Carlos Reygadas” Transnational Cinemas, Vol. 5, No. 1 (2014), p. 33.

[27] See e.g. De la calle (2001, Gerardo Tot), Nadie te oye: Perfume de violetas (2001, Marisa Sistach), Temporada de patos (2004, Fernando Eimbcke).

[28] The next president from PRI, Enrique Peña Nieto, was elected in 2012.

[29] See e.g. Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado, „Innocence Interrupted: Neoliberalism and the End of Childhood in Recent Mexican Cinema”, p. 129; Dan Russek, „From Buñuel to Eimbcke: Orphanhood in Recent Mexican Cinema”, p. 136. Both in Representing History, Class, and Gender in Spain and Latin America, ed. Carolina Rocha and Georgia Seminet (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2012); Carmen Elisa Gómez-Gómez, Familia y cine mexicano en el marco del neoliberalismo. Estudio crítico de Por la libre, Perfume de violetas, Amar te duele y Temporada de patos, unpublished PhD thesis, The Ohio State University, 2009, p.31.

[30] See Carmen Elisa Gómez-Gómez, pp. 1-2; Oscar Fernando Robles-Cereceres, En el nombre de la madre reconfiguraciones de la subjetividad femenina, la familia mexicana y la identidad nacional en el cine de Maria Novaro, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Arizona, 2002, p. 107.

[31] See Charles Ramírez Berg, Cinema of Solitude. A critical Study of Mexican Film, 1967-1983, (Austin: University of Texas Press 1992), pp. 158-160.

[32] Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado, “Innocence Interrupted…”, p. 118.

[33] Mette Hjort, “Themes of Nation”, in Cinema and Nation, ed. Mette Hjort and Scott McKenzie (London and New York: Routledge, 2005), p. 101.

[34] See Los Angeles Times, http://articles.latimes.com/2012/dec/01/world/la-fg-wn-mexico-calderon-cartels-20121130, date accessed: 01.09.2016.

[35] See also Miss Bala (2011, Gerardo Naranjo), another example of a film about drug war, which combined thriller and art cinema conventions.

[36] Marcelo Bergman, “La violencia en México: algunas aproximaciones académicas” Desacatos, 40 (2012), p. 76.

[37] David Bordwell, Poetics of Cinema, (London and New York: Routledge, 2012), p. 154.


Bolesław Racięski – born in 1987, PhD candidate at the Faculty of Management and Social Communication of Jagiellonian University (Kraków). His general research area is the cultural contexts of Mexican cinema; he is also interested in all kinds of fringe and paracinema. He has authored papers on Latin American, Israeli and American films and is a co-editor of „Bękarty kinematografii, czyli rzecz o filmach nie(do)cenionych”, a book which theorizes the problem of so-called „bad cinema”.

Welcome to BabaKiueria! Australian anniversaries and cultural forms of resistance

Rafał Nahirny

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 132-147

Rafał Nahirny

Wrocław University


Welcome to BabaKiueria! Australian anniversaries and cultural forms of resistance



One of the many negative consequences of colonialism is cultural hegemony of white males exercised in public spheres of former colonies. This privileged group has the ability to control, and thus to create and reproduce specific images of indigenous people in media such as press, television and cinema. Those representations, most often motivated by Eurocentric imagination and racial stereotypes, have not only legitimized privileged position of white men, but have also been internalized by colonized subjects over time. The article describes the process of taking control over their own image by the indigenous people of Australia. The author examines in detail subversive tactics and strategies used by creators of “BabaKiueria” (dir. Don Featherstone 1986). This short satirical mockumentary about postcolonial role reversal is the first film produced by Aboriginal Programs Unit of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). The mockumentary shows Whites conquered and colonized by Aborigines. The author describes the attempts to destabilize a dominant white gaze which were supposed to challenge the official media image of Australian Aborigines. “BabaKiueria” is presented in wider historical context as one of many significant actions taken during bicentennial celebrations of “discovery” of Australia that were intended to make postcolonial public sphere more open, complex and polyphonic.

Key words: Australia, indigenous people, ethnocentrism, postcolonialism, cultural hegemony, resistance



 It is a bright, sunny day. We can hear the sounds of nature. The singing birds, however, start to blend with the music coming from a transistor radio. A group of people is relaxing by the sea. The atmosphere is carefree and time is slowly passing by. Two men are drinking canned beer and flipping sausages on the grill from time to time as they talk. A woman reaches for a well-roasted piece of meat. Meanwhile some of the people are finding enjoyment in playing the native sport of cricket. This idyllic scene starts BabaKiueria (1986), a short film by Australian director, Don Featherstone.

This peace does not last very long. One of the cricket players shows off with an amazing play. The ball flies through the air and lands quite far away, almost in the sea. A young boy walks to the water to pick up the ball. Suddenly, he notices something disconcerting on the horizon and runs to warn his parents and the rest of the picnic goers. The sunny weather and relaxation are abruptly disturbed by the unexpected guests coming from the sea.

The military outfits of the intruders, resembling the Confederate uniforms from the American Civil War, tell us that we see soldiers. A self-assured officer, commanding this operation, gets off the motorboat and walks on to the beach with a confident stride. The goal of this military operation is soon revealed. One of the soldiers carries a pole with a flag, which he solemnly plants in the ground. A military reconnaissance is annexing the territory that shortly before was a scene of a picnic, and starting an invasion. It is a military operation of a special kind though, as the forces belong to… the Aboriginal people. Only now do we start to notice that the people we were just watching as they were grilling and playing cricket seem to have something more in common than just shared relaxation. All of them, without exception, are white and appear to be middle-class.

The picnic participants are not protesting. They are too surprised by the turn of events. From the beginning, the whole situation is under the total control of the unwelcome guests. The commanding officer asks one of the men loudly and clearly, pronouncing slowly each sound: What-Do-You-Call-This-Place? The confused grill participant, who moments ago was throwing empty beer cans into nearby shrubbery, replies: Err… barbecue area. You can see the surprise in his eyes evoked by, on the one hand, the unexpected arrival of the soldiers and, on the other, by the banal nature of the question for which the answer should be obvious. The military man, not troubled by the presence of the picnic goers, turns to his comrades and, as if there is no one else with them, says: They call this place BabaKiueria. Then he looks around and says, Nice native name… colourful. I like it. The cinematographer is emphasising the arrogant and domineering behaviour of the Aborigine by filming the officer from a worm’s-eye view and the picnic goers from above. Every gesture, even the smallest one, which we witness during this short conversation, has a deep meaning and helps the filmmaker create a strong opposition between the native people, in this case white, and the intruders.

The post-colonial world upside down

In Featherstone’s satirical film, the relations in post-colonial countries are taken under critical analysis by reversing the traditional roles of the coloniser and the colonised. Therefore, we are looking at the world where the white man, due to colonization, segregation and racial discrimination, has been pushed to the margins of society and found themselves at the bottom of the post-colonial hierarchy of the Aborigine country, to finally become a part of the “wretched of the Earth”. They are now completely dominated and dependent on the will of the colonists’ descendants, that is the black majority, which sets up favourable laws and holds the highest position in the country (including the position of the Minister for White Affairs[i]). We watch as the white minority is relentlessly harassed by the police and other national public services and institutions that forcefully take away their children or force them to leave the lands traditionally inhabited by the white men (who, by the film’s logic, are from typical middle-class suburbs). All those actions are of course justified with the concern for the wellbeing of the white man.

The film creators did not halt at transforming the depicted reality according to the cardinal logic of role reversal. We look at the white man through the eyes of an intermediary: the main character Duranga Manika (Michelle Torres), who is a successful and passionate journalist working for the Aborigine national television. Duranga, as she explains herself, has always been fascinated with the white man’s culture. She is a socially committed journalist who is not indifferent towards social issues. She wants to help the white men live in modern society and so her reporting regards the obstacles on the way to full assimilation of the indigenous people of BabaKiueria. Because of this, Duranga puts a lot of effort into fighting unjust stereotypes concerning white people that are prevalent among the black majority. The report starts with a typical street poll in which random passers-by are asked about their opinions on white people. One of the interviewees, dressed in a sharp suit and presented with a modern office building in the background, replies upset: Oh, I don’t know. I’ve never met one. He is clearly in a hurry and does not have time for such trivial things as white people’s problems. Duranga is not afraid to tackle sensitive social matters. She wonders why the white people are protesting against turning a highway into a park. She also engages in the controversial problem of evolution and the issue of white man’s intelligence. However, the most important character in the report is the Smith family living in the white ghetto (which is, as mentioned earlier, the suburbs), where they lead “a simple and uncomplicated life”. Duranga declares that she decided to stay with a “typical white family” and maybe even become a part of it. Thanks to this, she will be able to learn the strange customs and beliefs of the white people and then present those to a wider audience (the Smiths are played by Cecily Polson and Tony Barry, actors easily recognizable to Australian TV viewers). By using this method, as they are subversively using the format of a TV report in accordance to the mockumentary’s logic, the filmmakers make the post-colonial perspective of the white majority an important topic of their film.

 The innocent subject

The more Duranga tries to understand the white man, the more cringeworthy it becomes for the viewer. The material gathered by her shows is, from the viewer’s perspective, a series of amusing misunderstandings concerning the description of white man’s culture. A collective barbecue becomes camping next to primitive fireplaces that make burning the meat very easy (which, to the journalist’s bewilderment, seems to bring white people joy). Graffiti is depicted as a traditional art and thus being a set of enigmatic and magical signs, impossible to understand for the majority. Car wrecks become the peak achievement of white civilization. The betting shops are a place of a weird and irrational cult. The world of the white man is consistently made to look exotic in Duranga’s report. This happens because the journalist is primarily interested in identifying each difference between the primitive culture of the white man and the sophisticated culture of the Aborigine people.

With this, the ambivalent role of categorising culture and ideology is unveiled before the viewer. In Duranga’s report, they are used as mechanisms to show the Other as someone radically different from the dominating majority. The white man is a wild man who—for inexplicable reasons—opposes any attempts at being civilized. The reason for this state of matters, according to Duranga, is to a greater extent the mentality of the white man and his irrational inclination to senseless violence (these opinions are accompanied by archive footage showing riots at a stadium caused by the fans of opposing teams and a street parade celebrating Second World War veterans).

Because of this, even attempts at disputing these stereotypes are, in their nature, humiliating for the white people. It is then that Duranga, unknowingly, displays her own superstitions and prejudice; for example, when she says that an old lady’s flat is “surprisingly clean”, while trying to present the subjects of her report. In one scene, we see the Smith family as they all sit around the telephone and talk to their grandma. The journalist comments by emphasising the positive role of traditional family ties in white communities.

At the end of the film, Duranga is deeply convinced that she has come to a greater understanding of the uncomplicated culture of the white man. She takes pride in this before her viewers, yet at the same time she seems to lack basic imagination and empathy. She has spent a lot of time with the Smiths, but she is unable to really understand their existential situation. In one of the last sequences, the police forcefully separate the Smith family in order to drive their daughter to some unidentified social welfare centre as part of the “Whites Re-Education” program. The journalist comments in a dispassionate way: Parting with loved ones is never easy. I said goodbye to my mother recently when she went for holiday so, I know how they feel. The attempt at understanding the Other results in only shallow and superficial observations because in fact it is Duranga, not the Smiths, who turns out to be the main focus of the report. Duranga focuses on creating her own image as a journalist who is understanding, empathetic, and compassionate towards white people: a journalist who actively seeks social change and improvement of the difficult situation of the dominated minority. Even during the program, Duranga makes a speech to the employers, urging them to show good will and to give white people a chance at their businesses. It should be said that the Smiths do everything to maintain her preconception of them. They fully understand the nature of the entire project of which they have become part. Therefore, the Smiths’ strategy relies on confirming every stereotype imposed on them. They feel powerless against the government, its institutions, public media, and individuals representing these. At the mercy of the majority, they are completely dominated and thus they hope that by accepting the roles of “good, peaceful whites” they will remain unnoticed. The Smiths are presented as colonized subjects[ii]. Helplessness and lack of control over their own fate makes them try to satisfy constantly those that have power or their agents. They will be consistently trying to create a sense of self-satisfaction in the national television journalist, even if it means perpetuating a false image of themselves in her eyes. This quite often leads to amusing situations perfectly depicted by the filmmakers. Asked what they think about the stereotype of a white man being lazy and reluctant to work, they immediately answer by saying they would choose hard work, cleaning up the garden or the house over picnicking with their friends without any hesitation.

Duranga, as she builds her status as an understanding individual who is committed to the cause, uses two kinds of discourse characteristic for white civilization. Apart from the language of cultural anthropology, she uses the discourse of social welfare. By this, she can be in the position of the ingénue subject. For Duranga, racism has only a mental dimension. Structural violence—with its systematic and institutionalized practice and meaning that work beyond an individual being—is omitted. That is why, in Duranga’s opinion, the way to solve the issue of white people is to change the suspicious approach both sides have for each other. And smile a bit, says a police officer interviewed by the journalist. Changes on the systematic and political level are unnecessary. The dominating point of view consistently does not acknowledge the structural problems and deeper social processes. It aims in a completely different direction and the Other serves as a form of a mirror in which white people can see themselves as generous, caring and understanding.

That is why the makers of BabaKiueria, instead of appealing to white people’s nobleness, making them aware of the wrongdoing and difficult situation of the indigenous people of Australia, put them, to some extent, in minority’s shoes. Insight does not come from manifesting empathy, but as a result of experiencing the Aboriginal people’s experience by using the Smith family and how the film empathises with them. Compassion is, to some extent, a side effect, because the filmmakers are not trying to impose any moral obligations upon the viewer, only entertain them. The seemingly painless laughter conceals an ethical challenge requiring an authentic response from the audience.

Unsettling ending

The comedy in Featherstone’s film is based mainly on the surprising approach of reversing roles and the skill with which the makers built an exceptionally realistic vision of an upside-down world, while paying attention to the smallest details and gestures. However, the whole joke ends with a quite unexpected punch line that diverges from the atmosphere of the entire film. In the last scene of BabaKiueria, we see a TV set standing in the middle of an empty room. Suddenly a brick goes through the window, breaking it.

The ending may elicit a sense of uncertainty in the viewer. Until that moment, the story was developing according to the logic set by the filmmakers. The viewer is expecting another element of the world presented in the film to resemble a fragment of their own world. In this way, the story draws the viewer in and surprises them in the last scene. This can be seen as a form of confirmation of Duranga’s vision of white people as prone to using force and easily resorting to violence. In this sense, it is the next part of the journalist’s report that serves as a way to further amplify the effect and finish in a suggestive way.

Simultaneously, the ending scene does not fit into the traditional structure of a joke. Instead of defusing the tension, we are confronted with a punch line that unsettles rather than makes us laugh. Perhaps the brick was thrown by the Smith’s son who, unable to accept his parent’s humiliating submission, ran away from the police. Is it a sign of increasing frustration? In that case, the act of vandalism would become an act of cultural despair. Alternatively, maybe we are witnessing a start of resistance and political action that could transform into open confrontation. If so, maybe the Aboriginal journalist accidentally caught the moment of the rising of a new political awareness that aims to change the status quo. This, though, does not put all doubts to an end. Perhaps the creators themselves are directly expressing their own opinion in the final scene, discarding the formula of the mockumentary. After all, the brick is aimed at the TV set standing in the middle of the room, serving as a clear symbol of mass media controlled by the white majority. Would it be correct to understand that the filmmakers believe violence is an inevitable constituent for the process of political emancipation? The time of day could also be symbolic. It is evening and the night will soon come. Something ends and the time of uncertainty comes.

The film unexpectedly leaves the viewer with these doubts, instead of ending the whole joke with a funny punch line. We are laughing while watching the reversed world created by the makers of BabaKiueria makers because we feel safe. Mary Douglas, reflecting on the nature of tickling, points out that we feel amused only by the touch of people close to us. We know well that it is only a fake attack[iii]. Likewise, while watching Featherstone’s film, we know the history is different and in 1788 it was not an Aborigine canoe that reached the beach in Dover, but British ships which sailed into Botany Bay. If it were not for the ending, some viewers would probably finish Featherstone’s film with a sigh of relief and immediately go back to the world where it is the white man who is in the privileged position.

 The spectacles of power

The opening scene of the arriving Aborigine explorers turns out to be a historical re-enactment organized by the dominating majority as part of celebrating the anniversary of the start of the colonization of white men’s world. It is a clear allusion to actual political and social events that were highly important to Australian people in the second half of the 1980s. Featherstone’s film was shown on Australian television in 1986, a very special moment in the history of Australia, which was preparing for a grand celebration of the bicentenary of the arrival in 1788 by white colonists, i.e. the so-called First Fleet[iv]. The fact that the organizing committee (Australian Bicentennial Authority) was founded in 1979 indicates how important this was to the then officials. The celebration was supposed to go on for the entire year and the organizers had a budget of 200 million dollars.

The formal celebrations of consecutive anniversaries of the beginnings of Australian colonization have a long tradition. In the 19th century, due to the centennial anniversary of the arrival of the first colonists, officials from the rest of the British colonies were invited to the celebrations, which lasted a week. In 1938, the celebration of the Sesquicentenary, dubbed by the press as a kind of carnival, lasted 3 months[v]. The members of the 150th Anniversary Celebrations Council decided that the main event would be a reconstruction of the raising of the British flag as the symbolic start of the Australian colonization. It was not in any way an extraordinary event for Sydney residents, who had been witnessing such spectacles since 1901, when, as part of celebrating the creation of the Commonwealth of Australia, a re-enactment of Captain Cook’s landing in Botany Bay was staged[vi].

As part of the 150th anniversary celebration, it was decided to make the re-enactment special. In order to accomplish this, a replica of Supply, the ship on which the governor Phillip came to Australia, was launched. The audience was also to be entertained by an orchestra and planes flying above them. For the sake of dramatic effect, Aborigine people from Menindee and Brewarrina were brought and “quartered” in police barracks during the arrangements. The Aborigines were supposed to play the role of their ancestors, which meant playing the role of “savages” who, when seeing the boat with the governor coming[vii], would wave their spears and then run away in fear. Fortunately, the calmness and peaceful gestures of the British sailors and soldiers were allegedly enough to persuade the indigenous people to come back and welcome the foreigners in a friendly way[viii].

The re-enactment was planned to end with the raising of the flag. How to expand the almost minimalist form that Governor Phillip chose for this event almost 200 years ago was discussed. The ceremony of raising the national flag is not a particularly exciting event. In addition, the only thing the colonist did was to raise a toast for the King, which definitely did not help the people working on the re-enactment. Therefore, a fictional speech was prepared for the actor playing the role of the governor so that the whole event would be more formal and solemn. This is how a commentary was created which would explain to the viewers the significant character of this not very spectacular element of the whole re-creation[ix].

It is easy to notice that the members of subsequent organizational committees highly enjoyed historical re-enactments. In the eyes of government officials, they have become very useful tools of colonial education. Much to the audience’s joy, the recreations made it possible to “reanimate” the past and at the same time “mythologize” it so that it would be imprinted into society’s memory[x]. From a psychoanalytical point of view, almost compulsive repeating of the scenes showing the beginnings of the colonisation of the Australian continent functions as a symptom of neurosis and inability to deal with the traumatic past.

In 1988, a significant change happened in this regard. Jonathan King, a descendant of Philip Gidley King, one of the officers of the First Fleet and later governor of New South Wales (1800-1806), inspired by reading his ancestor’s journals decided to re-create the whole journey of the first colonists. The second First Fleet was to set sail exactly the same day as the First Fleet and go the same way to finally enter Port Jackson in a triumphal manner on January 26, 1988, witnessed by a cheering crowd.

The organizational committee did not include King’s re-creation in the official schedule of celebrations. Even more, he was not granted financial support, even though King had the support of two great Australian historians: Manning Clark and Geoffrey Blainey. A few factors were influential in the making of this decision, which was rather surprising in the eyes of the public.

King’s project—and most of all the never seen before scale of the spectacle—caused it to be highly hazardous and expensive. The members of the committee also surely remembered the incident that took place during the celebrations in 1970. Witnessed by 20 thousand viewers, among them Queen Elizabeth II herself, two students dressed in uniforms from the era reached the beach in Botany Bay in a motorboat and “claimed” Australia in the name of King George and University of Sydney. Meanwhile, the “real” captain Cook was still slowly paddling towards the shore. According to the press, the audience appreciated the stunt and cheered for the two jokesters. Two years of planning and the audience was more interested in the police chasing after the students rather than the spectacle itself[xi]. If the whole project was successfully ruined by two students, then what to expect from determined and organized indigenous people and white activists supporting them, especially as the re-enactment of Captain Cook’s landing on April 29, 1970 was met with controversy? Particular outrage was caused by a scene of armed confrontation between the Aborigines and the British that was allegedly caused by the natives.

The indigenous people of Australia were becoming more vocal in insisting on memorizing the victims of Australian colonization as part of the official event. This fight was expressed in a performance by an artist group from the northern territory called Aboriginal Memorial (1987-1988). Two hundred trunks, hollowed out by termites and traditionally used by tribes living in the north of Australia as coffins, were decorated in traditional markings to commemorate the victims of colonization who could not have typical funeral services[xii].

King’s project was also controversial for another reason. An excessive emphasis on the role of the First Fleet in the history of Australia would naturally distinguish above all the citizens who are descendants of the British immigrants. By refusing to support King financially, the committee avoided accusations of not only Eurocentrism, but also Anglocentrism, which suggests significant changes in the construction process of the national identity of Australians.

The committee finally decided that instead of another re-enactment, it would arrange a parade of sail ships that would conclude the regatta (Dar Młodzieży, a Polish sail training ship, took part in that regatta). The revival and accentuation of the romantic image of sea adventure made the complicated and sometimes traumatic past of Australia safe, almost harmless. In the organizer’s vision, the Aborigines also played a part. The direct connection between the events of January 26, 1788 and the present was weakened and 200 years suddenly became 40 thousand years. The First Fleet sailors became the next people, after the Aborigines, who bravely challenged the seas and oceans to come to Australia. The story created by the elites became a narration of triumph of human spirit and will over the dangerous and hostile forces of nature. Making the past unclear and undefined clearly contrasted with the spirit of King’s project, which aimed to make the re-enactment as faithful to real events as possible[xiii].

Another example of a significant shift in the media strategy of constructing the national identity is an exceptionally long dispute concerning the main slogan of the celebrations that was supposed to present the nation to the whole world, guarantee the citizens a festival, and persuade the tourist masses to come to Australia. For a long time it seemed that “Living Together” would win over “The Australian Achievement”. However, the more conservative politicians, who criticized the decision made by the organizers as marginalising the role of the British in the creation of Australia, forced the creation of another slogan: “Celebration of a Nation”. The central point of view in the end shifted from the English identity to a multi-cultural one[xiv] and during the official event the role of diversity and a new trans-national identity were emphasised. In the TV advertisement for the celebrations we see people of different colours, the celebrities of those days (sportsmen, artists, TV personalities), with different backgrounds, colourfully clothed, dancing while holding hands in front of Uluru (Ayers Rock) and singing “Give us a hand, let’s make it friend!”[xv]. A similar meaning can be found in the official promo film. At the beginning, we only see shots depicting nature. The unwelcoming and majestic Australian landscape is suddenly filled with smiling, cheerful people. Among the descendants of the European colonists, we can easily distinguish the faces of Aborigines and Asian people. All of them combined now make up the Australian nation. Next, there are scenes showing the energy and creativity that are, as the montage suggests, the result of the aforementioned diversity[xvi]. A similar spirit was present in the speech made by the Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke in front of the Sydney Opera House, during which symptomatic words were spoken: In Today’s Australia, our very diversity is an ever-growing source of the richness, vitality, and strength of our community[xvii].

Media jiu-jitsu

Due to massive protests and voices insisting on including the Aborigine perspective as a part of the celebrations, the authorities at the national Australian television ABC boldly decided to create the Aboriginal Production Unit, an editorial team that would focus on and create programs concerning the Aborigines with the help of specialists. BabaKiueria is the first material shown on TV that was produced by the APU.

In one scene, Duranga asks the Smiths if they would like to say something to the millions of viewers. The members of the APU found themselves in a similar position. Essentially, for the first time in history, they could speak to the millions of viewers with the help of Australian television in a way and terms they would find appropriate. In this sense, the mockumentary is an ironic meta-commentary for the situation in which the filmmakers found themselves. In one scene, Duranga makes a plea to the television authorities to consider hiring white actors or creating films telling the stories of white people.

The members of the APU, instead of trying to build a positive image in the eyes of white viewers, decided to take a very bold and risky move. Consequently, BabaKiueria is not just another cultural auto presentation which aims, as per usual, to highlight the traditions and rituals of the indigenous people. Featherstone does not focus on helping white people understand and appreciate the “primitive” art or strange and exotic rituals that remained unchanged in a few enclaves in the deserts of the northern territory. The makers of BabaKiueria also discarded the rhetoric of ecology and the tempting possibility of presenting the indigenous people as living peacefully with nature. Therefore, we do not see the Aborigines whose life style would function as an alternative to the soulless civilization of the white man and the progress, consumerism and alienation that comes with it. Instead of referring to the aesthetics of nobility and reviving the essentialist and romantic concept of tribalism, which would be easy to understand for a white audience, the first members of the APU created a film that effectively destabilizes the white gaze. As a result, they escaped the contexts of representing the cultural difference in media and built an incredibly subversive counter-history that effectively criticized the official discourse[xviii].

The makers of BabaKiueria parodied the conservative love for historical re-enactments in the opening sequence of the film. Similarly to the creators of Aboriginal Memorial, they intercepted the cultural forms and rituals of white people to use against them in a way. As a result, they managed to critically analyse not only the incompetent attempts at understanding the Other, but also the paternalistic attempt at building positive image and the policy of social help and equal chances. All of this makes BabaKiueria an example of a practice called “media jiu-jitsu” by Ella Shohat and Robert Stam as it is a guerrilla-like and subversive creation that uses the practices and language of the authorities in order to show their true nature[xix].

Historical re-enactments of events such as the landing of Captain Cook or the landing of the First Fleet in Botany Bay can be classified as phenomena which cultural anthropology calls the spectacle of power: detailed research concerning them was started by Clifford Geertz in his study on the Balinese court operas[xx]. The critics of Negara accurately noticed that in the world presented by the American anthropologist there is no place for resistance, subversion or any attempts at resisting the ideology enforced by the spectacles. Perhaps we should also ask about the counter-spectacles.

It should be noted that BabaKiueria is not the only project that aims to criticize the spectacles of power. Similar events included the Aborigine activists organizing their own celebrations, during which a modified version of governor Phillip’s landing was presented. The central moment of this re-enactment was the throwing of the actors playing the British invaders back into the sea[xxi]. At the same time, Burnum Burnum, a member of “the stolen generation” and famous Aborigine activist, whose actions often took the form of political performances, planted a flag on the cliffs of Dover and made a famous declaration: I, Burnum Burnum, being a nobleman of ancient Australia do hereby take possession of England on behalf of the Aboriginal people. Burnum Burnum also pledged that the Aborigine colonists would recognize the right of English people to own private property[xxii] (as opposed to white people, who did not respect the traditional law of the native Australians). He did stipulate that Aborigine sages would be on British coins, Pitjantjajara language would be studied in schools, and children would learn the art of hunting. Simultaneously, he assured his good will and calmed the British people by saying that he did not plan to poison the wells, add strychnine to flour, kidnap children, or take rare minerals back to Australia.

Today, BabaKiueria is an invaluable testimony to the dynamic changes taking place at the time in the national identity of Australians. In the first half of the 1980s, a group of Meriam people started High Court proceedings against the Commonwealth of Australia. The legal decision in the famous Eddie Mabo case overturned the colonial doctrine of terra nullius. Another symbolical event took place in 1985, when Uluru—an iconic Australian tourist attraction—was officially recognized as a sacred indigenous site and returned to its traditional owners. Featherstone’s film is also part of the gradual process of the creation of trans-national media[xxiii]. In the 1980s, Aborigine residents in distant regions of the continent,—the so-called remote communities—were creating their own local television with the help and support of activists and politically engaged researchers like Eric Michaels. The alternative media were a form of resistance against the cultural hegemony related to the dynamic development of satellite television; however, those two media ecosystems existed independently of each other. Only the access to the entertainment industry, and thus mainly to production and airtime on national television, would give the indigenous people a chance to reach a much bigger audience, and by doing so build empathetic trans-national connections between the indigenous nations and the white majority. The makers of BabaKiueria used this perfect opportunity to make a brave attempt to undermine the hegemonic status of the dominating mono-culture; an attempt which aimed to make the national identity of Australians celebrating the bicentennial anniversary of “discovering” their own continent more problematic and open.

BabaKiueria (1986, colour, 29 minutes)

Director: Don Featherstone

Script: Geoffrey Atherden

Cinematography: Julian Penney

Film editing: Michael Honey

Music: Peter Crosbie

Cast: Journalist (Michelle Torres), Ms. Smith (Cecily Polson), Mr. Smith (Tony Barry), Minister for White Affairs (Bob Maza), Police officer (Kevin Smith).

The film received United Nations Media Peace Prize in 1987.


Agnew Vanessa, ‘Introduction: What is Reenactment”, Criticism 46:3 (2004).

Coombes Annie E. E., Rethinking Settler Colonialism: History and Memory in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, (Manchester: Manchester University Press) (2006).

Curran James, Ward Stuart, The Unknown Nation: Australia After Empire, (Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne University Publishing) (2010).

Dening Greg, “Endeavour and Hōkūle’a: A Theatre of Re-Enactment Histories”, Humanities Research 1:1 (1997).

Domańska Ewa, Historie niekonwencjonalne, (Poznań: Wydawnictwo Poznańskie) (2006).

Douglas Mary, Ukryte znaczenia, (Kęty: Wydawnictwo Marek Derewiecki) (2007).

Geertz Clifford, Negara: państwo-teatr na Bali w XIX wieku, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego).

Geertz Clifford, Wiedza lokalna: dalsze eseje z zankresu antropologii interpretatywnej, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego) (2005).

Haltof Marek, Kino australijskie: O ekranowej konstrukcji Antypodów, (Gdańsk: słowo/obraz/terytoria) (2005).

Macintyre Stuart, Clark Anna, The History Wars, (Carlton: Melbourne University Press) (2004).

Memmi Albert, The Colonizer and The Colonized, (Boston: Beacon Press) (1970).

Nugent Maria, Captain Cook Was Here, (Cambridge – New York – Melbourne: Cambridge University Press) (2009).

Shohat Ella, Stam Robert, Unthinking Eurocentrism. Multiculturlaism and the Media, (London – New[xxiv] York: Routledge) (1997).

Young James E., “The Counter-Monument: Memory against Itself in Germany


[i] The character of minister Wagwan is played by Bob Maza, an actor and activist for the rights of the Indigenous people of Australia, the president of the Aborigines Advancement League and delegate to the United Nations General Assembly.

[ii] Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and The Colonized, (Boston: Beacon Press) (1970).

[iii] For analysis of the tickling phenomenon, see chapter Żarty in the book: M. Douglas, Ukryte znaczenia, (Kęty: Wydawnictwo Marek Derewiecki) (2007).

[iv] The goal of this journey was establishing a penal colony in New Southern Wales. That is why most of the “colonists” were prisoners. The arguments and discussions concerning celebrating the beginnings of colonization resemble in many ways the controversies created by the Columbus Day, organized every year in the United States ever since 1937.

[v] Sydney Celebrations Begin To-day. THREE MONTHS OF CARNIVAL, The Age, January 18 (1938), p. 12. All press materials were accessed by the author of this text by using Google News archive, http://news.google.com/newspapers, date accessed: August 26, 2016.

[vi] Maria Nugent, Captain Cook Was Here, (Cambridge – New York – Melbourne: Cambridge University Press) (2009), p. 37.

[vii] Stuart Macintyre, Anna Clark, The History Wars, (Carlton: Melbourne University Press) (2004) (chapter Bicentenary Battles).

[viii] Sydney’s Great Carnival. Huge Crowds View Impressive Historical Pageants, The Age January 27 (1938), p. 11.

[ix] This was the method used to deal with the basic weakness of historical re-enactments. See: Vanessa Agnew, ‘Introduction: What is Reenactment”, Criticism 46:3 (2004), p. 331.

[x] During re-enactments, the historical process is reduced to events deprived of many conditionings. Additionally, the danger of re-enactment lies also in creating the illusion of the past being “us, only wearing funny clothes”, as Australian historian and anthropologist Greg Dening said. The illusion of being faithful to details causes the past in its totality and variety to disappear and it becomes an especially easy target for ideological manipulation. See: Greg Dening, “Endeavour and Hōkūle’a: A Theatre of Re-Enactment Histories”, Humanities Research (1997), p. 34.

[xi] For more on this see James Curran, Stuart Ward, The Unknown Nation: Australia After Empire, (Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne University Publishing) (2010), p. 206. The press materials describing the audience reaction: “Capt. Cook Loses Out To A Speedboat”, St. Petersburg Times, April 30 (1970), p. 2; and “Cook in a speedboat intrudes on the scene”, The Sydney Morning Herald, April 30 (1970), p. 4. From the interview with two students by The Sydney Morning Herald journalist, it seems that the stunt was only a student joke with no political motivations.

[xii] By doing this, the Aborigine artists referred to the European traditions of commemorating fallen soldiers. One of the many memorial places like this is the ANZAC War Memorial in Sydney, built in 1934 for soldiers who died in the Battle of Gallipoli, which would later become an identity-building myth for the Australians (more on this: M. Haltof, Kino australijskie: O ekranowej konstrukcji Antypodów, (Gdańsk: słowo/obraz/terytoria) (2005). By using the traditions and rituals of white men, the indigenous people made their own perspective clearer and more convincing. The creation of the Aboriginal Memorial coincides with the creation of a new perspective on the monument. This project could be included as part of “counter-monuments” described by James E. Young. See: James E. Young, “The Counter-Monument: Memory against Itself in Germany Today”, Critical Inquiry 18:3 (2001), pp. 267-296.

[xiii] To learn more about the role of history in the celebrations of the Australian bicentenary, see the monographic edition of Australian Historical Studies 23:91 (1988).

[xiv] For more concerning the disputes around the celebrations of bicentennial, see Stuart Macintyre, Anna Clark, (chapter: Bicentenary Battles).

[xv] Celebration of a Nation (1988, ad agency “Mojo/MDA”), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDxjLoTuAlA, date accessed: August 26, 2016.

[xvi] Celebration of a Nation (1988, Australian Bicentennial Committee), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OdDHgJLW348, date accessed: August 26, 2016.

[xvii] Norman Abjorensen, “Day of contradictions”, The Sydney Morning Herald, January 27 (1988), p. 60.

[xviii] To read about the concept of contre-historie by Michel Foucault and the subsequent concept of counter-history as a form of showing what is hidden and traumatic see: Ewa Domańska, Historie niekonwencjonalne, (Poznań: Wydawnictwo Poznańskie) (2006); chapter 3 of Monumentalna przeciw-Historia. Muzeum Żydowskie Daniela Libeskinda; and chapter 4 of Pamięć/przeciw-historia jako ideologia. Pozytywy Zbigniewa Libery. The concept of counter-history is also discussed in the monographic edition of Representations 26 (1989): Special Issue: Memory and Counter-Memory.

[xix] Ella Shohat, Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism. Multiculturlaism and the Media, (London – New York: Routledge) (1997), p. 328.

[xx] Clifford Geertz, Negara: państwo-teatr na Bali w XIX wieku, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego) (2006) and Wiedza lokalna: dalsze eseje z zankresu antropologii interpretatywnej, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego) (2005) (chapter 6: Centra, królowie i charyzma. Refleksje o symbolice władzy).

[xxi] For more on this see: Mark McKenna, p. 160. The event report also In The Sydney Morning Herald (N. Abjorensen, p. 60). As the journalist observed, if the government can re-enact history, so can the Aborigines.

[xxii] Annie E. E. Coombes, Rethinking Settler Colonialism: History and Memory in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, (Manchester: Manchester Uniwesrity Press) (2006), p. 223.

[xxiii] See Ella Shohat, Robert Stam, Introduction in: Multiculturalism, Postcoloniality, and Transnational Media, ed. Ella Shohat, Robert Stam, (New Brunswick – New Jersey – London: Rutgers University Press) (2003).

Rafał Nahirny is an associate professor in the Cultural Studies Institute at Wroclaw University. He wrote a book about microhistory and strategies of individual resistance to various forms of repressions, violence, and exploitation used by state, religious and local authorities. Nahirny is also the author of a series of articles devoted to the cinema of postcolonial Australia and symbolic violence. His research currently focuses on new technologies in the context of ethics and aesthetics of privacy.

An artist as a figure between industry, technology, and imagination. Some remarks on Portret artysty jako inżyniera. Twórczość Edwarda Ihnatowicza by Joanna Walewska

Anna Nacher

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 148-151.

Anna Nacher

Jagiellonian University


An artist as a figure between industry, technology, and imagination. Some remarks on Portret artysty jako inżyniera. Twórczość Edwarda Ihnatowicza by Joanna Walewska


Joanna Walewska’s account of the life and work of Edward Ihnatowicz can be described without much exaggeration as groundbreaking. To date, it is the first known comprehensive monograph of an artist who became familiar to the wider public as the author of Senster, a robotic and interactive installation imbued with animal-like form, displayed at the Philips’s Evoluon in Eindhoven between 1970 and 1974. Yet, the book deserves praise, not only as the first of its kind, but also for two other reasons. Firstly, the author devoted a significant amount of energy and time to investigating archives that are often difficult to browse through, whether because of their limited availability (as is in the case of the Ihnatowicz family documents), or due to their immense size. When Walewska writes about the archives of James Gardner, the reader can have only a vague clue of their untapped richness, yet it is enough to admire immediately the attempts to render the historical moment as accurately as possible based on the exchange of the communication between the famous curator and the artist. Secondly, the reader becomes extensively acquainted with the vast cultural and historical background of Ihnatowicz’s creative work. The book consists of five chapters that—as Walewska remarks in a bit of an unjustified self-deprecatory manner—are supposed to represent stylistic and methodologic heterogeneity, due to the variety of resources consulted.

The first chapter provides the necessary context of the period shortly after the Second World War, when the serious relationships between art, science, and technology were about to be forged, mostly in the field of the nascent computer art; or rather, in the somewhat ambiguous area of the various forms of artistic experimentation with computing that were later tentatively referred to as “computer arts”. Tracing its beginnings, Walewska follows the narrative of the famous “Cybernetic Serendipity” (held at the ICA in London in 1968) as the decisive moment in the crystallization of the field, with the consecutive establishment of the Computer Arts Society (1969). She briefly mentions previous events, including “the first public exhibition of computer art”[1] in April 1965, at New York’s Howard Wise Gallery and another exhibition (the same year) at the Technische Hohschule in Stuttgart (organised by Frieder Nake and Georg Nees). She is aware of the debate surrounding the formation of the category, which has always been prone to semantic instability, partly since it was born as a project undertaken more by engineers-turned-artists and often derided as dehumanizing the arts as such. As Taylor reminds: “Computer art was an extension of the computer industry rather than a natural outgrowth of the arts”.[2] Yet, the extensive discussions on the possible genealogies of computer art aside, Walewska drives it to the point where she emphasizes the fact that “Performativity and processuality (…) call attention to the shift from the artwork-as-object towards the artwork-as-process that happened in the field of art”.[3] Such an observation provides well-justified ground for the interpretative framework she establishes in the following chapters, situating Ihnatowicz’s creative output at the crossroads of kinetic art, computer art, contemporary sculpture, cybernetics, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence, each of which gets briefly explained in relation to Ihnatowicz’s ideas and projects. The second chapter presents the artist himself; for the first time in the Polish literature on the subject, the life and work of Edward Ihnatowicz is given the attention it deserves. Walewska traces his whereabouts back to the days of his pre-war childhood on the eastern borderlines of the then-Poland. Later, she pictures the difficult path of his life throughout his youth and early adolescence, in times of big historical shifts. The Ihnatowicz family followed the journey shared by thousands of Polish citizens involved in military actions that spanned continents during the war. The family also encountered material hardships when they later settled in post-war Great Britain during times of economic deprivation. The narrative is continued in the fourth chapter, where the story of Senster—Ihnatowicz’s most famous artwork—is presented in a very detailed yet concise way. The chapter follows the part presenting the beginnings of the cybernetic art of the day (with another detailed story of “Cybernetic Serendipity” as well as the social milieu of the early British electronic artists, curators, and critics). The next chapter brings an in-depth worthwhile discussion of the problematics of artificial intelligence, especially the shift which has been so thoroughly analysed by N. Katherine Hayles[4] (it is worth noting that she is absent from the bibliography). Granted, Hayles’ book is not novel, but it still provides an interesting and valid perspective on how the concept of cybernetics has evolved through the consecutive instalments of the Macy Conferences. The way Walewska summarizes the debates on embodied cognition in the British context is of particular value regarding both the groundbreaking character of Ihnatowicz’s project and the current discussion on artificial intelligence, which—especially in Poland—sometimes seems stuck in an idea of cognition that is limited almost exclusively to the logics and the acts of operations on symbols.

However, glossing over a few doubts would do a significant disservice to the author of this important book that deserves the act of serious reading. First, one cannot escape the impression of the author’s slightly too strong commitment to the tenets of history of art in its most conservative version. Surprising as it sounds considering the scope of the problematics employed as the interpretative framework (the history of computing technology, kinetic art, and cognitivism), Walewska seems to keep getting back to the safe grounds of the concepts provided by the classic training of art historians. Repeatedly expressed declarations of the innovatory and forward-thinking nature of Ihnatowicz’s undertaking remain somewhat unproven due to the perspective that too often recalls the romantic paradigm of a (male) genius, an exceptional, unique human subject who with his special powers/abilities exceeds the limitations of his time. In this regard, the brief outline of media archaeology as the methodological choice of the author gets only partial justification. For example, posing the question whether Ihnatowicz was forced to lower his artistic expectations and scale down his vision might have produced more interesting results if reframed as an investigation of the nature of the cooperation between one of the leading technological companies of the time and an artist who was just about to gain more significant recognition. What was at stake in such a relationship? Was Senster, as had originally been planned by Ihnatowicz, indeed a predesigned vision come true, or was it rather the outcome of a series of negotiations between a company and a designer? The answer seems not so much the effect of meticulous work in the archive, as might be the outcome of a chosen theoretical perspective. This is especially true given the fact that Ihnatowicz was not the only artist cooperating with Philips Electronic: Nicolas Schoeffer’s CYSP1 was another joint project between the Dutch company and an early innovator who helped to bring about cybernetic art.

One might be also struck by the omissions in the bibliography: the fundamental “White Heat Cold Logic. British Computer Art 1960-1980” edited by P. Brown, Ch. Gere, N. Lambert and C. Mason gets briefly mentioned in the footnote and as the source of the article by Zivanovic. Interestingly, the article by Richard Ihnatowicz in the same volume is not mentioned at all. In some cases, Walewska cites the publications apparently available in their earlier forms (G.D. Taylor’s doctoral dissertation has been already digitally published by Bloomsbury). It seems the author was very up-to-date with the current debates on the subject matter at the time of writing; however, for some reasons he did not sufficiently verify the sources at the time of editing. Unfortunately, the editing on the part of the publishing house is the weakest aspect of the book, considering the number of minor and major mistakes, for which apparently Iwona Wakarecy as an editor and the proofreading of Wydawnictwo Naukowe UMK is responsible. In addition, the chapter on media archaeology gives an outline of the field which otherwise is much more complex and prone to internal debates. Walewska somehow glosses over such discussions, presenting a rather too unified and compact view of this heterogeneous field (she also manages not to mention Siegfried Zielinski at all, which itself is far from a gesture of innocence). However, her account succeeds in perfectly embodying one of the basic tenets of what has been presented as her methodology of choice. The editors of one of the newest takes on media archaeology state: “Rather than positing an “orthodoxy”, the book presents itself as an open forum for very different voices, hoping to trigger “polylogues” about the problems and prospects of this emerging field”.[5] Joanna Walewska’s proposition unquestionably instigates such polylogy: its subject is not limited to Edward Ihnatowicz’s legacy, but also skilfully incorporates the matter of the very beginnings of technological art. The audience interested in how the field at the crossroads of science, art, and technology came into existence gets a highly inspirational book, unfolding the lesser-known aspects of the process and documenting the creative work of this prominent figure, who for years seemed (unfairly) slightly forgotten. Regardless of any doubts, it is definitely something to be thankful for.

Joanna Walewska, Portret artysty jako inżyniera. Twórczość Edwarda Ihnatowicza, (Toruń: Nicolaus Copernicus University Press) (2015), p.242.


[1] G.D. Taylor, When the Machine Made Art. The Troubled History of Computer Art (New York, London: Bloomsbury) (2014), p. 30 (Kindle version).

[2] G.D. Taylor, p. 30.

[3] G.D. Taylor, p. 29.

[4] N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman. Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press) (1999).

[5] Media Archaeology. Approaches, Applications, and Implications, eds. E. Huhtamo, J. Parikka (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press) (2011), p. 2 (Kindle version).

Anna Nacher –  since 2006 she has been working at the Institute of Audiovisual Arts, Jagiellonian University, Kraków, Poland. She teaches courses on media theory, digital culture and e-literature. Her current interests include locative media, media art, art gaming, transmedia storytelling, visual studies, digital culture and the new materiality in the contemporary art. The author of three books in Polish: the last one, published in 2016 focuses on the digital mapping and locative media imagery. Other articles include: “Images of the City in the Making: Participatory Mapping, Dynamic Data Processing and Collective Knowledge, Cultural Studies Review 4 (18) 2013; Mashup as paratextual practice: beyond digital objects (in the age of networked media) in N. Desrochers, D. Apollon (eds.), Examining Paratextual Theory and its Application in Digital Culture, Information Science Reference, IGI Global 2014; Stelarc and His Experiential Machinarium [in:] R. W. Kluszczyński (ed.),  STELARC: Meat, Metal & Code: , Gdańsk 2014 and “Internet of things and automation of imaging: beyond representationalism”, Communication+1, vol 5, 2016.

Vampires, zombies, and phantoms – histories of horror stories. Review

Magdalena Zdrodowska

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 152-156.

Magdalena Zdrodowska

Jagiellonian University


 Vampires, zombies, and phantoms – histories of horror stories. Review


The second half of the year 2016 was generous for Polish fans of dreadful stories as two interesting books came along. The first, Wiedza potworna. Horror w badaniach kulturowych (The Monstrous Knowledge. Horror stories and cultural studies) published by the Nicolaus Copernicus University Press, contains seven essays by faculties and PhD candidates of the Cultural Studies Department of the same University. The essays cover a wide range of topics, from Polish folk tales to Japanese horror stories. The second book is an anthropological monograph of the horror film Upiór w kamerze. Zarys kulturowej historii kina grozy (Phantom of the camera. The cultural history of the horror film) by Magdalena Kamińska, published by Municipal Gallery Arsenał in Poznań, Poland. This book is the outcome of a series of lectures on the history of horror films conducted by Kamińska in the Gallery. These publications complement each other, providing the reader with a wide range of contexts and references of horror stories.

The authors of the essays contained in the The Monstrous Knowledge, who work in the field of anthropology and cultural studies, deal with a wide range of issues from folk tales to video games. Each essay is devoted to a specific problem that may be genre, national context, or a figure such as a vampire or zombie. The opening essay by Dariusz Brzostek is somewhat out of the box; it takes up the figure of an anthropologist coming back from field research as a monstrous character and a source of threat for his/her people. The threat is based on the transition of the scientist from Western rationality to the savage (monstrous) knowledge of the people who were supposed to be the subject, not the source of wisdom. The anthropologist is presented as a double stranger: for both the researched community where he/she arrives and for his/her own people upon return. This initial essay is not only an self-referential game undertaken by a culture researcher, but also introduces the primary theme of the whole book: monstrous knowledge as a non-scientific, non-rational (in the academic, Western understanding) pattern of world interpretation and possible scenarios of action. It is knowledge that permits the supernatural as the actor in reality, as it dresses up the otherness in monstrousness.

The second chapter, written by Piotr Grochowski and Pamela Staroń, is devoted to the powerful Polish folklore figure of the phantom. In fact, it is a monography of the phantom in Polish traditional culture and reshapes its image, which is already grounded in Polish ethnography. Phantoms used to be described by folklore researchers as a multitude of locally characterised figures of different genders and scopes of action (e.g. vampire, nymph, and spook). However, the authors propose treating all these creatures as creations constructed from a wide range of folk motives that would be activated whenever needed.

The remaining chapters of The Monstrous Knowledge deal with horror stories either in literature, film, or in video games. Those by by Aldona Kobus and Wojciech Jaracz are discussed in more detail below.

In her essay on Ann Rice’s vampire novels, Kobus focuses on two elements: the gothic and the queerness as elements that constitute Rice’s writing. Using them, Kobus presents the novels as transgressive and opposing the dominant ideology, but also points out that these qualities were constitutive of the 19th century gothic prototypes of Rice’s literature. Kobus recalls the multitude of examples of drag, lesbian relations, male women, and feminine men in gothic literature and Rice makes use of these one century later by introducing, for example, a queer family and homosexual desires into the vampire community she describes. This vampirical subversiveness also penetrated film adaptations, marking them with transgressive tensions; however, Kobus points out that the wave of romantic stories about vampires that followed Interview with the Vampire (1992, dir. Neil Jordan) resulted in narratives that were extensively erotic, but also extremely conservative on closer inspection. The chapter closes with an in-depth critique of the True Blood series (2008-2014, HBO).

Wojciech Jaracz concentrates on horror films of the second half of the 20th century, pointing out the changing status of the body as their driving force. In fact, horror films owe their power more to the horror of the body and disgust, rather than fear. The fitter and more well-kept the body was supposed to be in the second half of the century, the more dreadful were the associations with animality, death, aging and pain. Jaracz underlines both the dominant discourses and the fact that the counterculture valued the body highly as a source of self-expression. In this context, the disintegration of the body and the cruelty in horror films is explained as a powerful element of the genre.

The second book is The Phantom of the Camera, by Magdalena Kamińska, who has experience in both culture and media studies. Her book is the first Polish monography of horror film since 1986; others were mainly lexicons. Kamińska’s first and foremost assumption is that the horror story is a universal narrative and fulfils “an anthropological task” (as she calls it). The core of a horror story is an anti-miracle, a conflict between humans and supernatural forces. Horror stories wake up existential fears as well as strategies for coping with the fear of death and unknown in the real life of readers, listeners, and viewers.

Kamińska starts with a reflection on film genres and horror movies in particular. She states that rather from traditional culture and folk tales themselves, horror films come from their transposition by gothic literature; however, she does not negate the powerful influence of contemporary urban legends on horror films. Due to literary reinterpretations, during the 19th century folk creatures gained emotions, motivations, and psychological depth: they were no longer simple representations of pure evil and malice. Telling the story of the horror film, Kamińska moves back and forth between Europe and United States. She begins in 1920’s Germany, where the genre was born (yet not proclaimed nor coded) in the expressionistic tales of Murnau, Dreyer, Wegener, and Lang. Then she moves across the Atlantic to Hollywood, where the canonical figures of Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster were taken up and fully exploited in the following decades. She then goes back to Europe to tell the story of eurotrash films, especially British Hammer productions, and follows the counterculture in the United States with the new wave of sophisticated, award winning horror movies, as well as the birth of gore and splatter. The latter are defined by the author more as an aesthetic style than a subgenre and not exclusively associated with horror. Kamińska closes with a rather bitter reflection on the rebirth of horror in the 1990s in the form of neo-baroque, which for some reason she defines as digital, although the films that Kamińska credits as such do not contain much CGI. As a great fan of F.F. Coppola’s Bram Stocker’s Dracula (1992), I have to mention my doubts regarding the presentation of this film. It was classified by Kamińska as digital neo-baroque, even though Coppola openly gave up CGI and generated almost all the special effects using old-fashioned, analogue techniques. This decision was crucial as the whole movie is an (successful in my opinion) attempt to capture the history of the vampire film in a nutshell. It evokes the German tradition of vampire-the monster, the early Hollywood tradition of vampire-the elegant, the foreign aristocrat, and the exploitation tradition of vampire-the sexual predator. This aspect (that seems extremely interesting) as absent from Kamińska’s analysis.

The book is a vibrant and entertaining narrative on the history of the horror film. The author claims the genre is based on universal human needs and emotions, regardless of administrative or national borders; however, her selection of films and trends is limited to Western or even more narrow Anglo-Saxon realms. It is in fact the history of American and British horror films with a few short detours into German, French, and Italian trends, evoked whenever Anglo-Saxon film tradition related to or used them. Basically, non-Western films are absent from the landscape of Kamińska’s history of horror movies. The closing chapter is indeed devoted to Japanese horror films, but starts with The Ring (1998, dir. Hideo Nakata) and does not present much more. Even when they are mentioned, non-Western horror films are evoked only from a Western point of view; The Ring being the first Japanese horror story to catch the attention of American and European audiences. Other than Japanese movies, Asian horror films are only signalled, and South American, African or even East European are not even mentioned. In addition, films belonging to the genre but not regarded as important, cult or classic (from today’s perspective) are not included in the book at all or only briefly mentioned.

All this makes Kamińska’s book a history of the Western classic (or mainstream) horror film; richly inlaid with contexts, cultural backgrounds, curiosities, and the like, and it fulfils its role brilliantly. Phantom of the Camera is a valuable proposition, a diachronic narrative concentrating on the links between the trends and subgenres, trying to ground them in both the culture and production schemes of specific periods. Kamińska reconstructs the cultural and film contexts as well as the production aspects, rather than abbreviating the plots of the specific films, which is often the case and a real sore point of Polish film studies.

What needs to be mentioned concerning Phantom of the Camera is the beauty of the book. Hard covered and printed on fine paper, it conveys not only Kamińska’s narrative, but also the highly consistent graphic layout and illustrations by Paweł Flieger. The book is solicitously edited with pages having separate layouts combining text and Flieger’s graphics. This conscientiousness is worth praising as, on today’s Polish publishing market, academic books as nicely published as this are not common, as (often appearing in publishing series) they follow the pattern of economic paper, ink, and usage of space.

Both books are of a great value as reflection on horror stories (in both literature and film) is painfully underrepresented in Poland, where popular culture seems unworthy of serious academic interest. They are interesting when read together as in many aspects they complement each other. Kamińska’s book casts a broad light on the long-term development and relations and influences of the horror film, while The Monstrous Knowledge spotlights specific tropes, figures, and contexts.

Magdalena Kamińska, Upiór w kamerze. Zarys kulturowej historii kina grozy, (Poznań: Municipal Gallery Arsenał) (2016).

Potworna wiedza. Horror w badaniach kulturowych, ed. Dariusz Brzostek, Aldona Kobus, Miłosz Markocki, (Toruń: Nicolaus Copernicus University Press) (2016).

Images embedded in reality

Mateusz Zimnoch

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 157-161.

Mateusz Zimnoch

Jagiellonian University


 Images embedded in reality


Nacher’s book is an innovative study on a specific contemporary media phenomenon that exposes images as embedded in reality rather than referring to it in terms of the symbolic order. The starting point of the study is the important act of getting over the heritage of the poetics of representation and moving forward to an alternative paradigm where media are no longer reduced to the simple space of mediation between the signifier and the signified, but become equal actors amongst the social space. Not only do structural concepts such as the famous conduit metaphor have no right to strictly reflect in Nacher’s concept, but also the dialectical criticism of poststructural thought (such as Baudrillardian simulacrum) is an intellectual space left by Nacher in search of the proper dictionary for contemporary media research. She announced that she would abandon the post-dualistic reflection to find a fair place for contemporary media, which are no longer the domain of epistemological „in between” (subject and object, symbolic and real, self and other, culture and nature, body and mind etc.), but rather separate and independent entities that transgress the simplicity of linear relations of cause and effect.

After the founding act of leaving the realm of representation, the book encounters the challenging task of describing the specificity of „the secret life of images”. The main concept is that images are not only signifiers of reality, but also its standalone elements that interact with the whole environment as well as with each other. As Nacher puts it, they are embedded in reality defined by the wireless network, as they are „flow concentrations of data, actors’ energy, emotional engagement, and processes of socialization”. Nevertheless, those new forms of interaction used to be unstable and dispersed. Thus, she focuses on the process of ontogenesis of images which contingency and emergency remains of Plato’s chora: an adaptable space for practices which produce objects. After Simondon, Nacher suggests that images and the data on which they are based, their media-environment, and practices which have an impact on their emergence create a system that is „on the edge of stability”. She refers to Latour and Lefebvre to describe properly the character of mediasphere, which seems to be an emergent space of various abilities rather than a consistent system with strict rules.

What is important for Nacher is that media are not as ontologically strong as we are used to thinking. Referring to Life After New Media. Mediation as a Vital Process by Kember and Żylińska, which is one of the crucial points of reference in the whole of Nacher’s dissertation, she emphasizes their soft and temporal character by making a shift between media and mediation. With this act, she moves from traditional, dualistic, representational ontology to the philosophy of process (mostly referring to Bergson and Deleuze, but also to James, Varela, Maturana and others). Those sources of inspiration, together with Simondon’s philosophy of technology, Gibson’s concept of affordance, and some minor elements of other theories (e.g. Bruno Latour’s ANT), serve as philosophical guideposts which help the reader follow Nacher’s concept and put it in a certain intellectual tradition, even though her path does not refer to it in strict terms, but rather moves through it transversally.

With this leading idea expressed in the introduction, Nacher outlines the territories of cybercartography in six chapters. Each is dedicated to a particular phenomenon. She starts with the problem of post-media as a basic term for all further reflection, which, according to her, is not always described thoroughly enough. Thus, she refers to classical works of Rosalind Krauss to mark the importance of the weak fundament of media ontology in the post-media environment, where the border between the semiotic and material/physical order is weak and blurred. As Nacher thinks of the wireless network as a crucial aspect defining such an environment, in the second chapter she moves to a distinction between media and mediation and focuses on the second term as being more adequate for describing the space filled with code (internet of things etc.). Then, she moves to locative media to explain some experimental artistic practices that meet mainstream technology.

In the next two chapters, in order to move to analysing the critical and participatory mapping phenomenon, Nacher focuses on more particular subjects that are the problem of artistic practices of walking (as an embodied cultural practice) and land art. At this stage, she definitely narrows down the area of reflection, limiting it to very concrete problems. It helps Nacher show how her quite theoretical concept works in practice. The final chapter leads to final remarks delineating the transductive theory of image based on two main points of reference: Simondon’s concept of transduction and Gibson’s theory of affordance. It resolves possible doubts about new metaphors suggested by Nacher and describes them thoroughly. According to her, such a theoretical construct helps us leave the post-representational terminology and metaphors behind and find a more adequate language for describing images as embedded in reality.

What might be interesting, although the main intention of the book looks quite telling and adequate, is that from time to time Nacher herself seems to escape from her own theory to find a more suitable descriptive language. The problem is that where she escapes is, paradoxically, a part of the realm of traditional dualism. Even though referring mostly to the non-essentialist heritage, she also needs some strict distinctions that could be questionable. For instance, just after a clear declaration of closing the radical dichotomy between image and reality, she makes in the very next sentence a distinction between imaginative and affective as well as between material and quasi-material. Whilst imaginative-affective opposition could be explained by Nacher’s attitude towards radical empiricism, the same reason makes it hard to justify the sense of the second pair of oppositional terms. Nacher distinguishes material post-media condition from quasi-material coding operations, having said that they belong to different ontological realms. However, such a statement successfully corresponds with traditional language of the post-Platonic metaphysics. With no doubt, a radical distance from the post-representational paradigm is naive and Nacher knows it very well. This is why she tries not to neglect it, but to let it evolve. However, separating post-media conditions from IT operations just because no bits of information can walk on the streets might seem unjustified, especially considering the author’s empirical mind-set and belief that the material world and post-media environment diffuse constantly.

Another possible doubt about Nacher’s book is how far from being accessible to a non-professional reader it is. Those who are not very well oriented in contemporary cultural studies on media might even find it uncommunicative. Whether it is an advantage or not is a matter of a particular perspective, mainly because of fact that the book is at the same time a valuable contribution to a narrow, professional field of study. The reader, however, must be aware of facing the highly complex disquisition aimed not to expound a certain segment of knowledge, but rather to become an original part of the international discussion on locative media. That is why the main assumption of Nacher’s contribution is that author and reader share the same canon. As a result, „Locative Media” might become a frustrating journey through hundreds of unintuitive terms and unfamiliar names, at least for those who are new to the subject, or to the research to which Nacher refers. The book will not serve as a students’ course book, it is not any kind of synthesis, nor research dissemination: it is rather an experienced researcher’s elaborate contribution to the particular field of study she is mainly interested in.

Having said that, it seems important to express another precariousness about the work: the incongruence between the book’s aspirations and the language in which it was written. Even quick research shows that Nacher is situated in a relatively narrow group of Polish researchers interested in an equally narrow subject and with no doubt she remains an unquestioned leader amongst them. Thus, it might be quite reasonable to suggest that „Locative Media” could not gain the as much proper resonance if limited to the field of Polish media studies as they could on an international level. The book itself is a part of a global discussion, but is at the same time expressed in the national language. Thus, it seems clear that in this case translation and dissemination amongst a wider audience is a natural need. Any kind of limitation on that field would be a significant loss for both the book and cultural studies on contemporary media development.

All things concerned, „Locative Media” is an example of significant contribution to a specialized field of media research. If it reached an international audience, it could have a positive impact on the development of the discipline; however, on the Polish field of study, it might be a little too hermetic and thus difficult even for many professionals. Some distinctions made by Nacher might also seem questionable as in some points they simply refer to the intellectual tradition that was to be left behind. Nevertheless, it still seems obvious that the book is essential for any researcher interested in new media, contemporary artistic practices, and cyberculture.



Anna Nacher, Media lokacyjne. Ukryte życie obrazów (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego) (2016), ss. 233.


Mateusz Zimnoch, PhD in Media Studies (University in Warsaw), PhD Researcher in Cultural Studies (Jagiellonian University in Kraków). He explores the new forms of longform journalism and nonfiction narratives. His particular fields of interest are postmodern literary journalism, creative non fiction and digital journalism (especially VR, AR and 360 videos). His research papers were published in journals such as „Teksty Drugie”, „Przegląd Humanistyczny”, „Kultura i Historia”, „Ruch Literacki” and others. Currently he focuses on exploring VR potential for longform journalism development.

Table of Contents 2016 vol.1 no.1

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 1

Table of Contents  2016 vol.1 no.1


(Dis)emancipatory technologies


(Dis)emancipatory technologies (Editorial)

Magdalena Zdrodowska

Tamil Documentary Naali: Low-End Technology and Subaltern History

Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai

Minority representation in the Digital: Narratives from Christian Communities in Delhi

Rajan Benson

Shaming and socially responsible online engagement

Shadow W.J. Armfield, Dawn M. Armfield, Laura O. Franklin

Movement as language, signification as identity: Understanding and empowering the autistic community in online spaces

Hannah Ebben

“Nostalgia for the future…” – prosthesis as a pop-cultural weapon?

Marta Stańczyk

Ableism and Futuristic Technology: The Enhancement of ‘No Body’ in the Films »Lucy« and »Her« 

nili R. Broyer

The technologies of experimental Japanese filmmakers in the digital era

Agnieszka Kiejziewicz




My life in art. A conversation with Bill Viola  

Andrzej Pitrus

Transcultural Art of Bill Viola

Krzysztof Loska

Sixty years later

Alicja Helman

(Dis)emancipatory technologies (Editorial)

Magdalena Zdrodowska

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 1, pp. 1-4

Magdalena Zdrodowska

Jagiellonian University


 (Dis)emancipatory technologies (Editorial)


In the 19th and especially the 20th century, powerful emancipatory processes were taking place that reached a climax in the middle of the 20th century. The massive civil rights movements of the late 1960s included women, aboriginal people, people of colour, ethnic and sexual minorities that were fighting for respect and representation within Western societies. These were powerful generational experiences and set the pattern for the emancipatory movements throughout the second half of the 20th century of groups seeking empowerment and social change, including deaf and disabled communities.

Most definitions emphasize the processual character of empowerment that regards either individuals[1] or communities[2]. As Marc A. Zimmerman points out, this term can be understood as both value orientation for policy makers and social change, and as a “theoretical model for understanding the process and consequences of efforts to exert control and influence over decisions that affect one’s life, organisational functioning, and the quality of community life”[3].  What is in common across many various empowerment definitions are the issues of reclaiming control and gaining access to resources (including information). In many cases, technology plays the important role of empowering artefact[4] that balances inequalities in access to resources and the communicational public sphere, helping both individuals and collectives to gain self-esteem, representation, and independence.

Communication technologies are perceived as powerful allies of communities fighting for empowerment and recognition. Skilfully used mass media such as press, radio, and television may greatly assist minorities’ efforts to influence public opinion and thereby pressure policy makers. This scenario is called “the boomerang effect”[5]: the media or NGOs are engaged to support and amplify the voices of groups whose causes are not audible in the public sphere due to oppression (such as lack of access). Thus, with the help of journalists or activists, the initial social, cultural and communicational inequalities are balanced.

However, the positive impact of communication technologies is not limited to mass media. There are examples of DIY technological practices that have had an important impact on oppressed groups. Teletypewriters for the deaf (initially invented, distributed and managed by the deaf themselves) that were introduced in the late 1960s in the United States and in the 1970s in Western Europe helped the deaf to overcome the constraints of voice-based telephony.  Behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern European countries, both DIY radio receivers and skilfully used commercial models made it possible for people to access alternative Western free sources of information.

For the oppressed and excluded, electronic communication technologies seem even more supportive, especially social media. The rise of electronic media shows the emancipatory potential of information and communication technologies such as hacktivism or cloud protesting. It has made self-representation and activism much easier for communities whose options are limited due to their minority status, disability, and social or political situation, as shown by Mary L. Gray in “Out in the Country. Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America”[6] or Stefania Milan in “Social Movements and Their Technologies: Wiring Social Change”[7]. Technology enables limitations of the physical world such as the geographical spread of community members or architectural barriers to be overcome and makes it possible for minority groups (including the disabled) to enter the public sphere, network, and gain representation. On the other hand, technology may also act as a barrier that disabling users due to technical issues such as inaccessible software (as described and analysed by Katie Ellis and Michael Kent in “Disability and New Media”[8]. In 1999, Lawrence A. Scadden, a blind researcher, enthusiastically wrote, “The proliferation of optical character-recognition systems connected to speech synthesizers has brought me the ability to read almost any printed material independently. The growth of the Internet and the World Wide Web has resulted in my ability to communicate independently in text with people all over the world just as it has for you and for millions of other sighted and blind people. The ability to conduct research on-line has provided me a new-found independence”. However, he added, “This increased independence has been threatened from time to time with the emergence of new technology and new approaches for information presentation, but we continue to enable accessibility to evolve almost as fast as the technology”[9].

Similarly, the impact of social media on so-called cyber revolutions that empowered the oppressed, such as the Arab Spring and the #occupymovement, was not as powerful as was initially recognised. These movements quickly gave up extensive usage of social media, as it is an extremely easy target for surveillance and abuse. In fact, technology can be an oppressive element from which some groups seek emancipation: perfect examples include the governmental and medical technologies, such as statistics and eugenics, which have been used in constructing normalcy in industrial societies since the 18th century.

There are more complex and in fact paradoxical examples of relations between technology and empowerment, such as the western deaf education system. Founded on the idea of the rationalized social order of Enlightenment, deaf residential schools were a tool for organising society by removing non-normative group members from the social domain and placing them in special institutions. Schools for the deaf (and also for the blind) were initially not educational but charity institutions, where children were normalized: taught how to fit in with hearing society. These institutions had full control over pupils’ bodies and constructed their professional lives by training them for a limited choice of occupations—all for the sake of making society more efficient. Schools for the deaf served as an apparatus for eliminating from society those who did not fit in, and returning them adapted and rehabilitated. However, schools at the same time gathered the dispersed deaf in one, physical space, thus creating a propitious milieu where unified sign language and later Deaf Culture emerged. In fact, the technology that was supposed to integrate the deaf into mainstream society facilitated the creation of a distinctive Deaf community and identity: a community of ‘others’. The most vivid consequences of these educational governmentality practices may still be observed in the United States (which inherited the French educational system), as strong and dynamic communities arose around schools for the deaf. They provided opportunities to meet future partners and friends and make life-along bonds, in fact to create an alternative social sphere.

Inspired by the diversity and ambiguity of the role of technology in emancipatory processes and practices, we present this issue of “TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies”, which is devoted to both the emancipatory and disempowering effects of technology. There are seven articles covering five thematic areas:

  1. The role of technology in minority groups gaining representation under oppressive circumstances. In the article Tamil Documentary Naali: Low-End Technology and Subaltern History, Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai analyses the film Naali/The Stream (directed by Murugavel and Lakshmanan; 2012). Shot with a simple handycam, this documentary brought the life and struggle of the local Tamil community into public discourse. The author points out the democratising potential of low-end technologies; however, it is also shown how they can be used both for and against local communities. The second article, Minority representation in the Digital: Narratives from Christian Communities in Delhi by Rajan Benson, is grounded in field research and concentrates on social media usage by one particular minority group. Benson shows the double-edged sword of technology that enables the Christian community in Delhi to gain representation and build collectivity in a hostile social and political realm, while also making it also possible to trace and threaten individual activists.
  2. The discriminative and disempowering potential of new media In Shaming and socially responsible online engagement, Shadow W.J. Armfield, Dawn M. Armfield, and Laura O. Franklin investigate the problem of online linguistic and visual shaming based on their qualitative research of online communication.
  3. The technologically boosted reshaping of the (self)representation of people with disabilities. Here we recommend two articles. The first is Movement as language, signification as identity: Understanding and empowering the autistic community in online spaces, in which Hannah Ebben analyses the potential of online video platforms for autistic community representation by studying videos uploaded by individuals within the spectrum. The second is “Nostalgia for the future…” – prosthesis as a pop-cultural weapon?, in which Marta Stańczyk analyses the most popular prosthesis users in American popular culture and investigates the shift within the meaning of prosthesis: from a sign of vulnerability and passivity to an identity-building element of individual empowerment.
  4. The narrative refiguration of ableism and disability may be found in the article Ableism and Futuristic Technology: The Enhancement of ‘No Body’ in the Films »Lucy« and »Her« by nili R. Broyer. Applying transhumanism theory, the author tries to redefine the oppositions of ableism and disability within the narratives of the films.
  5. The impact of newly created technologies on artistic practices. In her text, The technologies of experimental Japanese filmmakers in the digital era, Agnieszka Kiejziewicz presents four progressive Japanese visual artists who have gained more artistic freedom and access to potential audiences with skilful usage of digital technologies.


[1] D. Mechanic 1991, “Adolescents at risk: New Directions, conference paper cited after Marc A. Zimmerman, Empowerment Theory. Psychological , Organisational and Community  Levels of Analysis”, in Handbook of Community Psychology, ed. J. Rappaport, E. Seidman, (New York: Springer  Science and Business Media) (2000).

[2] Cornel Empowerment Group 1989, “Empowerment and family support”, Network Bulletin, 1, 1-23, cited after Marc A. Zimmerman.

[3] Marc A. Zimmerman.

[4] Carin Roos PhD & Åsa Wengelin “The text telephone as an empowering technology an empowering technology in the daily lives of deaf people—A qualitative study”, Assistive Technology 28:2, (2016), p. 63.

[5] Leszek Porębski, „Internet jako narzędzie mobilizacji politycznej mniejszości”, in Agora czy Hyde Park. Internet jako przestrzeń społeczna grup mniejszościowych ed. Ł. Kapralska, B. Pactwa (Kraków: Nomos) (2010).

[6] Mary L. Gray, Out in the Country. Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America, (New York University Press) (2009).

[7] Stefania Milan, Social Movements and Their Technologies: Wiring Social Change, (Palgrave Macmillan) (2013).

[8] Katie Ellis, Michael Kent, Disability and New Media, (Routledge) (2010).

[9] Lawrence A. Scadden, “Empowerment Through Technology”, Assistive Technology, 11:1 (1999) 59-65.

Tamil Documentary Naali: Low-End Technology and Subaltern History

Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no.1, pp. 5-20

Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai

Michigan State University

Tamil Documentary Naali: Low-End Technology and Subaltern History



My essay on the significant Tamil social activist documentary Naali/The Stream (Dirs. Murugavel and Lakshmanan, 2012) makes a strong case against the displacement of the indigenous people who live on the Nilgiris (Blue Mountains), along the borders of the states of Tamilnadu and Kerala, in South India. The film documents their lives through video footage shot with a small handycam (a 3CCD prosumer video camera) to argue for how low-end technology has enabled the empowerment of the local people by making possible the digital writing of a bottom-up history which opposes the official version constructed by the State. Nonetheless, the essay argues that this low-end technology is a double-edged sword, as it simultaneously enables “documentation” by NGOs to project the tribal people as causing the endangerment of the lives of the wild animals in the Blue Mountains. Thus, on one hand, innovations in technology and the democratization of media—enabled by the accessibility and affordability of digital video recording and editing—has inspired a lawyer and his poet/activist friend, both of whom are invested in the lives of the original inhabitants of the Blue Mountains, to critique displacement in the name of development by corporate bodies, with the connivance of non-profits or NGOs. On the other hand, the technology enables the appropriation and retooling of images of the same indigenous people to make a case for displacing them from their lands in the name of the conservation of forests and wildlife.

Key words: documentary, Indian documentary, environment, ethnic people, low-end technology, wildlife and forest conservation, ngo documentary


The Tamil documentary film Naali /The Stream (Dirs. Murugavel and Lakshmanan, 2012) was shot with a small handycam: the National Panasonic NV-GS 230, a 3 CCD consumer camera.[1] According to P. Thirunavukkarasu, the publisher of the preeminent Tamil cinema journal Nizhal, which focuses on documentaries and short films, Naali has been one of the most widely screened Tamil documentaries in recent years, particularly among the ethnic populace in South India. The documentary, however, has been mainly screened in alternative spaces like schools, colleges, universities, community halls, and documentary film festivals, and has not been broadcast on public or private television channels in Tamilnadu because of its politics.[2] Due to the absence of funding from the state since the 1990s, the documentarians in Tamilnadu have been forced to depend increasingly on non-profits or non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Naali, however, is unique in that not only is it independently produced, but it also posits itself as a critique of NGOs.

Naali documents the history of the Western Ghats (a range of mountains on the west coast of India), particularly the Nilgiri (The Blue Mountain), which is located on the borders between the southern states of Tamilnadu, Kerala, and Karnataka. It focuses on the lives of the tribal people in Kodanadu, Talaimalai, Mudumalai and Wayanad areas, which are located to the west of Tamilnadu and the east of Kerala. It is a collaborative effort between Murugavel, a lawyer who is a strong advocate of human rights, and Lakshmanan, a theatre-activist who is also a radical poet. Naali is an extension of their public lives in the Nilgiri as a committed lawyer and a radical artist for more than a decade and it exemplifies their investment in raising awareness regarding the socioeconomic problems of the ethnic populace. The project itself became possible when Lakshmanan bought a small digital video camera in 2002 and started shooting with it while he travelled with his collaborator Murugavel to the high altitude areas of the Western Ghats. The lightweight camera that enabled one to shoot even as the other steered the motorcycle was a major factor in the production of the documentary as it allowed them to gather amateur video of the landscape and portraits of local people during their regular work-related visits to the tribal neighbourhoods on the slopes and the top of the mountain ranges of the Nilgiri. The video, which they viewed once they were back at their editing room in Erode, a city a hundred miles down the hill, gave them the encouragement to shoot further and expand the documentary as they discovered that the tiny digital camera could withstand the cold weather and give them reasonably good images in the predominantly foggy conditions at high altitudes. They were initially unsure about the results of their shooting in the misty conditions at the top of the mountains, often at 1500 meters above sea level, as they could not carry any reflectors or lights in their backpacks that were filled with the warm clothing and blankets they needed for the four days of their stay up in the Ghats during their first unplanned trip. Their initial idea was to document the plight of tribal villagers who were the target of the wrath of elephants. In recent years, there have been increasing numbers of attacks on villagers and their homes by desperate elephants whose traditional habitats have been eroded drastically due to the connivance of corrupt government officials, mainly from the forest department, with traders, businesspersons and corporations in plundering the dense forests of the Ghats and its fertile mineral resources.[3]

Initially, their aim was to inform their audience through a short documentary about the condition of the people living on the Nilgiri, but as Lakshmanan and Murugavel started shooting for their documentary and interviewing the subjects, they often ended up spending many weekends travelling through the tribal areas and interacting with the locals over extended periods of time, thereby starting to learn in depth about their history, traditions, and culture. Their deeper exploration of the subject of their documentary was feasible because of the unobtrusive handycam and the small external microphone that accompanied it, as they could be put in one of the smaller pockets on the sides of their backpacks. Unlike a lawyer or a theatre performer from outside, their reaching out to the locals as documentarians with a compact camera and spending hours with the tribal people as they went about their daily life gave them an insight into their ethos: for instance, the cutting of trees like bamboo which regrew faster for creating shelters.[4]

Such deeper understanding of the ethos gradually changed the focus of their documentary: Murugavel and Lakshmanan decided to recover and showcase the long history of the Nilgiri and the rich traditions of its inhabitants, and foreground their lives and culture against a backdrop of globalization and mindless exploitation of natural resources in the name of development. Naali, therefore, blossomed into a painstaking effort on the part of Murugavel and Lakshmanan to counter the contemporary economic disempowerment of ethnic people by rewriting their history from the ground up. They also wanted to protest against their displacement by drawing attention to their lifestyle, which epitomizes coexistence between nature and habitats at high altitudes. The digital writing of such a subaltern history through a small handycam, they believed, could counter and challenge the many official versions of the government, the corporates, and the non-profits driven by vested interests.

This essay, therefore, studies how the use of low-end technology made possible the recording on video of the history of ordinary people living in the Nilgiri. More importantly, Lakshmanan and Murugavel could make the documentary from their own resources because of the economy offered by recent developments in technology, exemplified in this case by the prosumer camera that—while blurring the line between the consumer and the professional—also makes it possible to discover and work on new ideas during the making of a film. It can shoot in low light conditions and, because of the cheaper cost of recording mediums such as mini-dv tapes and SD cards, for long periods. This essay, therefore, details how Naali epitomizes both the recovery of the history of indigenous people and the documentation of the politics of the artists at the lower end of the spectrum: the ethnic populace of Nilgiri and the committed documentarians with their low-end technology.

Naali and Low-End Technology

In this context, it would be productive for us to explore low-end technology’s centrality in the very conception and execution of Naali during its early stages. For documentaries without external funding, the most crucial factor is the initial investment of time and labour. In this case, this could be organized around affordable technology as it offered acceptable images and sound during production (Panasonic handycam) and effective appropriation and organization of materials thereafter (Adobe Premiere editing software), thus giving an impetus to the successful production of an ambitious independent documentary without any significant external financial support. Therefore, considering Naali‘s context within the discourse surrounding digital technology and contemporary cinema is productive in this context.

The recent discourse surrounding digital technology and the loss of the “real”—framed generally as digital cinema and the loss of celluloid cinema’s ‘indexical identity’[5]—does not take into account the convenience of recording which digital technology offers at the low-end of the spectrum, wherein the traces of the real can be preserved electronically instead of through the complex chemical processes involved in developing and fixing silver halides on a nitrate or polyester base, as in the case of films.[6] Scholars are either elegiac about the passing away of cinema, or euphoric about digital utopia.[7] However, for many activists and documentarians like the ones I am detailing here, the primary question is one of having an affordable recording medium with which to catch “life unaware”, as the iconic Dziga Vertov proclaimed through his documentary/experimental film Man with the Movie Camera (1929) almost nine decades ago. For such filmmakers, the question of having the luxury to explore various ways to enhance or manipulate the originally recorded material on location did not arise. The scholarship on new media or digital cinema is not paying careful attention to the continuing relevance of digital video and its indexicality, particularly in the context of documentaries, which in reality are not restricted to low budget ones. For instance, Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure (2008) uses photographs taken in the Abu Ghraib Prison by a small group of low-ranking military police at the prison with their cell phones. Similarly, Channel 4’s documentary Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields (dir. Callum Macrae, 2011) uses cell phone videos shot by Sri Lankan soldiers of their abuse of the men and women of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) during the genocide of the Tamils in May 2009. Is it, therefore, enough for us to limit ourselves to thinking of events during which human rights are grossly transgressed in inhumane and often unexpected ways as the only moments when low-end technology can offer indexical recordings of reality? What about low-end technology’s capacity to record quotidian lives at distant locales through its affordability and accessibility, and to lend itself to the needs of the activist filmmaker who may otherwise find it difficult to make a documentary? The small digital video camera enables these filmmakers to record the “reality” of the lives and times of the people who matter to them, apart from helping them to explore the potential and the various possibilities of the subject matter in hand by overcoming the consideration of money or funding as the primary constraint or preoccupation of the documentarian. The freedom offered affects the very process of making a documentary and—as in the case of Naali—shifts the focus of the narrative.

Naali‘s Context

At this point, a brief trajectory of Indian documentary films after India’s independence (i.e. from 1947 onwards) and the place of Naali in such a trajectory would be productive to understand its historical context. As scholars like Anuja Jain (“The Curious Case,” 2013) and Camille Deprez (“The Films Division,” 2013) have detailed, The Films Division of India, which was established in 1948, followed in many ways the model established by the British documentarians for supporting socially relevant documentaries, and was influenced by the Griersonian discourse. The early documentaries of the Films Division were focused on disseminating knowledge and educating the masses in the context of addressing the nation. As in the British documentary movement, there were many who privileged personal expression and explored the documentary as an aesthetic form beyond its objective of information and propaganda, particularly from the 1960s onward. The 1970s also saw the expansion of Doordarshan, the public broadcasting service in India, which started its national telecast in 1982. Doordarshan provided space for the national exhibition of documentaries, though it was steeped in red tape and corruption.

In the beginning, the Films Division had its own employees direct the documentaries, and later contracted outside directors and producers to make films on specific topics. For instance, Mani Kaul, the master of experimental cinema in India, also made critically acclaimed documentaries for the Films Division. In a documentary like Arrival (1980), he mainly worked as an outside/contracted director using the technical crew and facilities of the Films Division, whereas in Siddheshwari (1989), he collaborated as an outside/contracted producer who had the freedom to choose his own crew (for instance the cinematographer Piyush Shah, who was not a Films Division employee) and facilities. Doordarshan had two major ways of providing support to documentaries: one was the “funded program”, in which funds for making a documentary are sought by submitting the idea and developed script in stages for approval to a committee, and the other one was “on royalty basis,” wherein a film is produced and—depending on its reception and critical acclaim, for instance, winning a National Award or its acceptance in major film festivals—Doordarshan telecasts your film and pays a royalty to the maker.

The 1990s saw India shifting its economic gear from the socialism-driven Nehruvian policies to liberalization and privatization. Therefore, subsidies were taken away and funding from the government shrank for documentaries; however, non-profits and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) gradually started producing documentaries on a regular basis. Like the government, many NGOs also have their agendas, often driven by their rich and powerful donors abroad. In spite of this, some documentarians have made use of the space available through NGOs to make the kind of films they believe in, recalling Basil Wright’s interventions in a film like The Song of Ceylon (1934), which undermines the Orientalist objectives of its sponsor, the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board.

Naali is unique in its uncompromising stance against the agendas of the NGOs, as it perceives them as the vestiges of colonialism, particularly in the context of the displacement of the ethnic populace of the Nilgiri. The mid-1990s also saw the arrival of digital cameras in India, which facilitated the production of documentaries. However, it is only during the last five years that the production of documentaries with low-end and affordable digital technology and their exhibition through easily available LCD projectors in alternative and remote spaces have become possible. Naali, produced in 2012, exemplifies such a seminal moment.

Naali: The Beginnings

Naali begins with the history of the ethnic populace living on the western mountain ranges in south India, particularly the lives of the people in Kodanadu, Talaimalai, Mudumalai and Wayanad, located on the borders between Tamilnadu and Kerala. Naali‘s writing of such a history attains its significance mainly because it remains unwritten from the perspective of these local people of the Nilgiri. There have been numerous documentaries made by the Films Division of India in which the tribal people appear in their colourful costumes as objects of spectacle as they dance in the idyllic backdrop of the mountains in the high altitudes where they live. Such exoticization has further distanced the people living on the plains from the harsh realities of the lives of the tribal people on the Nilgiri, and it is such an Orientalist representation and official history that Naali deconstructs right from its first frame.

The film begins with a title card “Naali: The Journey across the Blue Mountains” accompanied by the sound of birds. The soundtrack is dense, but through its indistinct quality it recalls archival material or found footage on the internet and suggests that the “Journey” suggested by the title is not the luxurious expedition or tour wherein we are going to trek along the picturesque mountain ranges of the Nilgiri with the filmmakers, but the seeking of the ordinary voices of its tribal people. The shots that follow further reinforce the objective of the documentary: a pan on the mountain ranges in a long shot from right to left dissolves into a static shot of the snow-clad Nilgiri accompanied by the sound of birds, which is now less intense due to the sudden reduction in volume. After this classically composed static shot of the Nilgiri, with a tree on the left branching into the frame, there is a dissolve again to a long shot that vertically tilts up to showcase the expanse of the mountains of the Western Ghats. A dissolve again leads us into the next shot as it zooms into the flattened snow-ridden landscape from another angle in a frame covered ornately by leaves to the music of string instruments that begins as the camera starts zooming in. This flat-white surface further dissolves into a landscape with passing clouds that acts as a wipe to lead us into a fleeting shot of two birds sitting on the right side of the frame in profile, as the voiceover recounts, “The Western Ghats have long been the backbone of South India.” Thereafter, we see a long shot of the (paddy) fields in the plains as the camera now pans from left to right and comes to rest in a closer shot, along the same axis, with the two flying birds landing on their feet. The voice-over continues: “The happiness and the misery of the (people of the) plains depend on these (people of the) mountains.”

Naali: Images and Sounds

This prelude effectively prefigures the form and content of the film through the minimalism in its visual style and the juxtaposition of its rhetorical politics thorough its voice-of-god narration. The low-resolution visuals—not only in their uploaded YouTube version but also on the original DVD copy of the documentary—draw attention to their low-end origins.[8] Furthermore, the use of found footage like the one with the birds further makes it clear that these documentarians are not aiming for the technical finesse of popular channels like National Geographic, but are invested in borrowing visuals freely and retooling them to illustrate what is narrated through the sound track, so that the images remain subservient to the rhetoric of the narrator.

Thereafter, the verbose narration overwhelms the soundtrack without any reprieve for the audience: there are no silent or musical segments without voiceover in this film, which has such rich possibilities for musically driven landscape montages from images available on the web and found-footage archives. The only moment when the sound allows the visual to directly speak to the audience is when the Naxilite leader (Arikkad) Verghese, who mobilized these ethnic people for an armed revolution, was killed by the cops because of insurgency.[9] Though the narrator is silent when the camera zooms in slowly on Verghese’s photograph towards the end of the sequence, there is an elegiac song in the soundtrack paying homage to the slain leader who enabled some of them to be freed from bonded labour. Thus, this reprieve from the monotonous voice-of-god—or reverse brainwashing, in this particular case—is due to the impossibility of layering the rhetorical voice over the image of the slain revolutionary leader at the poignant moment of his death/sacrifice, rather than being an aesthetic decision.

Such an approach immediately marks Naali as different from the many uploaded videos— particularly at tourist spots like the Nilgiri, on sites like YouTube, Vimeo, etc.—wherein it is not uncommon to see “picnic” videos shot on DSLR cameras and cell phones that are loosely edited to popular film or keyboard music.[10] Naali is co-written and codirected by Murugavel and Lakshmanan, with the latter also credited with videography and narration. The rawness of Lakshmanan’s voice as a narrator, as it reflexively draws attention to his background as a street-theatre activist, also distances us from the visuals since it is permeated with a sense of urgency and anger, and is far removed from the smooth and sophisticated voices generally associated with travel diaries or autobiographical video essays. Right from the very beginning, when he categorically asserts that the plains are dependent for their well-being on the mountains, there is a plea/advocacy for empathy towards the predicament of the tribal population which pervades the film, often bordering on propaganda. In Naali, the monotonous voice-of-god narration—generally the staple of government newsreels in India—is undermined by juxtaposing it with the fleeting, grainy visuals that are often in soft focus because of the fog in the high altitudes of the Western Ghats or due to the appropriation from a low-resolution upload on the web. Such a counterpoint aesthetic, between the constantly changing visuals in low resolution and the monotonous sound without any fluctuation, work in Naali’s favour as the film focuses on the paradox of the tribal people of the Nilgiri and their centuries-old history which goes back to prehistoric times, and the significance of their eco and environment-friendly culture, even as these indigenous people are forced to give up their traditional way of life and dispossessed of their land in the name of development.

The next segment ties the mountains and plains with shots of rivers and streams flowing down and underscores how plains are dependent for their basic needs on the mountain ranges of the Western Ghats which, according to the narrator, have been enabling the rain in these regions by obstructing the westerly winds (or the southwest monsoon winds) from the Arabian Sea, like walls for the “last 2 million years approximately.” Such mentioning of historical facts with adjectives like “approximately” sets up Naali’s perspective on history: while acknowledging the help/advice of Mrs. Vijayalakshmi, the curator of Sullivan Museum in Kotagiri and the personnel of Nilambur Teak Museum and Wayanad Museum through the initial title cards, Murugavel and Lakshmanan make it clear that in Naali historical data and oral history will together serve the purposes of their politics regarding the protection of the flora and fauna of the Nilgiri and its people. Nonetheless, their attention to detail is underscored by their careful mentioning of the height of the Nilgiri as ranging from 1500 to 2000 meters and the speed of the southwest monsoon winds at 20/30 kilometres per hour.

In the following section, when the narrator details how until 200 years ago the Western Ghats were covered with greenery which prevented soil erosion, the colourful visuals from the web are dissolved with snow as a transitional device to focus on the water that flows from the Nilgiri to provide for the needs of the people in the three southern states of Tamilnadu, Kerala and Karnataka. The choice regarding the colourful visuals in this section were, however, restricted to the available videos that could be downloaded in higher resolution. Nonetheless, some of such retooled videos are sharp and others are grainy and soft in focus. According to the editor of the film, Ashok, when the film was being edited in 2011/2012 most videos on the web were in very low resolution and became grainy and soft when downloaded and imported into the documentary.[11] Presently, with file-hosting and video-sharing services like Dropbox and Vimeo, it has become easier, whereas during Naali’s postproduction it was difficult and tedious to download high-resolution videos and reuse them. Here, I would like to draw attention to the significance of transparency in the context of digital video. John McMullan claims that the “[f]ilm’s shallower depth of field is what makers of movies for the cinema screen employ in order to direct the viewer’s attention to a particular object/subject on screen, as well as to create a fictional narrative world with parts of the screen that a viewer cannot themselves bring into focus. It is an aesthetic of the artistic more so than the scientific: the unabashed manipulation … for fantastical purposes. It is the filmic look that videographers have been attempting to emulate since the inception of video.” (Italic mine, McMullan, IM 7: Diegetic Life Forms II).[12] McMullan, draws from Babette Mangolte to argue for how such a “film look” is predicated less on transparency and more on manipulating the shutter speed.[13] For instance, the standard 24 frames per second shutter speed used in the shooting of a film does not allow for the kind of transparency in an ordinary pan shot, where the characters move at a normal speed, when compared with the normative 29.97 frames per second (NTSC) television standard. Therefore, for McMullan, the film look is an aesthetic that focuses on deviation from the real: “[It] lies in remediating the cinematic system of signs that implies artistry, quality, and expense; not in the realm of exhibiting a greater transparency.”[14] Here, what is significant for us in Naali‘s context is the fact that it was shot prior to the contemporary obsession with the shallower depth of field in digital video through the use of DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) cameras, wherein the filmmakers try to emulate the “film look.” The relatively much smaller sensors in the handycam used in Naali broadly kept most things in front of the camera in focus. The grainy or the foggy quality in some of the shots were due to the weather which, when juxtaposed with the greater depth-of-field offered by the lens, not only gives a specificity to the look of the visuals shot at unusual altitudes, but also adds to the indexicality of the image by carrying the traces of the weather conditions under which it has been shot. Even more important, it draws attention to the sensuous but difficult colder temperatures under which the ethnic populace of the Nilgiri lives.

Naali and Bottom-Up History: Nilgiri and Its People

As an advocate, Murugavel was looking for a space to foreground the “collective voice of the people of the mountains.” However, when the idea of the documentary took shape, Murugavel and Lakshmanan were not sure how much the inhabitants of the Nilgiri would cooperate or speak up in the interviews, but their earlier public life as an advocate and a street-theatre activist helped them in gaining the trust of a tightly-knit but closed ethnic community. Over the last two decades, these people have been witnessing the aggressive onslaught of the corporates who, along with the conniving NGOs and corrupt government officials, have been successful in occupying or leasing their land and displacing them.[15]


Lakshmanan also believed that the retooling of the stereotypical shots associated with the picturesque terrain and the ethnic people of the Nilgiri could be effectively used to contrast the romanticism surrounding the hills and the mythos of their colourful traditions with their present state of deprivation.[16] Such a visual scheme of the juxtaposition of the classical with the contemporary certainly proves effective in Naali, as exemplified by the sequence in which the narrator informs us of their ancient lineage: an illustration with old photographs from the museum of the people belonging to ethnic groups like the Irulars, Kurumbars, Vedars, Todars, Paniyars, Muduvars, and Kothars, is juxtaposed with the immediacy of the contemporary times through a shaky handheld shot in the present which showcases eager tourists on their trip to their favourite hill station. This sequence concludes with a classically composed ancient cave painting at altitude.

In stark contrast, the following segment has two shaky shots, apparently shot on the handycam without a tripod: one a pan and the other a tilt down that frames tourists to Edakkal caves in Wayanad district through long shots. By the choice of the long shot, the tourists are not privileged and are underscored as people in search of the exoticism of a primitive culture, as exemplified by the classical photographs that we just saw. The way the camera pans over the tourists to frame them as crawling ants is suggestive, and questions our understanding of them as tourists: it is clear that the tribal populace of today could merge with the tourists seamlessly in terms of their (modern) costume and demeanour. Thus, reflexively questioning our own interest in their exotic history, the narrator finally leads us to the cave painting to reinforce his statement that these ordinary human beings have been harmoniously living here in the Western Ghats with wildlife since times immemorial.

(Dis)empowering Low End Technology: The Double-Edged Sword

The significance of the above segment dawns on us later in the film when we realize that our curiosity as travellers is only a mask to hide our intention of poaching, as the film draws parallels between King Pazhassi’s (1774-1805) supposedly benevolent encroachment/intrusion to defend the ethnic populace and the welfare measures of the contemporary NGOs that are invested in disenfranchising the tribal people of their land and displacing them from the Nilgiri. Naali focuses on the history of the Nilgiri through players from outside: the colonizing British and their investment in tea, coffee, and oak trees, which played havoc with the ecology of the Nilgiri and the fate of its people; the iconic kings like Kumbala Raja, who deceptively defeated the Paniyar tribe and enslaved them and the caste-driven Phalassi Raja; and the NGOs with their agenda of displacing the tribal people in the name of wildlife conservation. By progressively juxtaposing them with the everyday lives of its inhabitants, the film blurs the difference in time and space by showcasing the history of the tribal populace as a linear narrative of occupation and plunder by outside forces.[17]

In a narrative which echoes the cyclical and the multi-layered form of the mountain ranges of the Western Ghats, Naali, after setting up the ancient lineage of the Nilgiri tribes, details the history of the various oppressive feudal landlords who were disempowered by Tipu Sultan, the progressive invader from Karnataka, only to be later reinvested with their authority by the British. As an extension, Naali traces the continuing exploitation and displacement of the ethnic populace at the hands of the Forest Department of the Government of India, and by the devious interests of some of the NGOs that epitomize the indirect rule of the global corporates in contemporary times.

While researching the etymology of the Nilgiri, which literally means ‘the blue mountain’, Murugavel and Lakshmanan could trace its roots to a stone carving of the Hoyshala period of the twelfth century, when Vishnuvardhan was the king. In accordance with Naali‘s aesthetic of counterpoise, they balance the ethereal and colourful past invoked by the artistic alphabets carved on stone by juxtaposing it with a shaky handheld shot of the mundane Sulthan Bathery bus station. The incongruity of a small quotidian bus station stands out in a sequence that is littered with the influence of Jainism and its aesthetic finesse, as exemplified by the finely carved monks with their exquisite features and meditative poses on the stone.     Nevertheless, even the poised Jaina king Vishnuvardhan defeated and ruled over the Todars, the original inhabitants of the Nilgiri. Naali suggests that such constant aggression by outsiders and their repeated occupation of the Nilgiri were possible because of the nomadic lifestyle of the tribal people who preferred to live in unison with nature rather than confront it. Naali, through such an aesthetic of interspersing the classical or ornate art work with the raw digital video shots of the quotidian life around a mundane bus station, questions our prejudice regarding the film’s privileged access to indexicality: film or digital video both allow for infinite possibilities to manipulate when the accent is on the ornate or the classical rather than the immediate and the indexical. Naali‘s low-end technology-driven aesthetic thus enables its politics of intervention through its aesthetic of contrapuntal juxtaposition, wherein the consummate/rich or the saturated is undermined in favour of indexicality of the real/imperfect/poor.

However, the same low-end technology has enabled the non-profits or the NGO’s to project a different picture of the indigenous population living on the Nilgiri/Blue Mountains as being chiefly responsible for the endangerment of the wild animals. With similar handycam technology, NGO’s construct narratives of a pristine land where it is not modern man with his machines, but the tribal populace who live in the mountain that is the enemy. The facility to digitally upload and subjectively modify photographs and mobilize a powerful group invested in their own interests, of benefiting from the (invisible) donors abroad, has relegated the reality of the lives of the original inhabitants of the Nilgiri to the background.[18] The empowering low-end technology, thus, is a double-edged sword as it can be effectively used to make a case against the disadvantaged and underprivileged people by the educated (upper) middleclass, who are conversant with the possibilities inherent in modern technology to manipulate and to further their own interests as the neo colonizers in these contemporary times of rapid globalization.

Sarah Pink in her seminal book, Doing Visual Ethnography: Images, Media, and Representation in Research (2007), engages with photography, video, hypermedia, and ethnography to shed light on the significance of arbitrariness and subjectivity in “visual ethnography.” Though aural and visual recordings have been central to ethnography, Pink’s intervention in the context of the polysemy of an image in terms of the specificity of its reception is productive for our understanding of digital technology as a double-edged sword in the context of the digitally manipulated photos/videos of the ethnic populace of the Nilgiri:

[T]he same photograph may serve a range of different and personal ethnographic uses; it may even be invested with seemingly contradictory meanings. The meanings of photographs are arbitrary and subjective; they depend on who is looking. The same photographic image may have a variety of (perhaps conflicting) meanings invested in it at different stages of ethnographic research and representation, as it is viewed by different eyes and audiences in diverse temporal historical, spatial, and cultural contexts. (pp. 67-8)

Naali: Displacement of People/Language

In the final segment, after a long fadeout which marks the transition to the 1990s, Naali focuses on the global NGOs like the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature, formerly World Wildlife Fund) and Wildlife Protection Society, which have been advocating for “humanless forests” with the help of local NGOs in India. Naali—through archival footage and photographs—narrates the attack on Ahwahnechees, the native Indian tribe of America. In 1865, Europeans gradually evicted them from Yesomite Valley where they had lived for centuries to clear the picturesque land for zoological parks and tourism. The ideology of the separation of wildlife from inhabitants originated there and led to the proliferation of several non-profits which have ever since advocated for wildlife sanctuaries and humanless forests, i.e., for the displacement of the ethnic people from the mountains and forests where they belong. Through a string of talking-head interviews interspersed with close-ups of the indigenous people of Nilgiri, Naali posits the greedy official machinery of the government and its conscienceless forest department as responsible for the poaching, stealing of wood, and destruction of wildlife in Nilgiri for decades. Through an insightful interview with C. R. Bijoy, an activist working for the cause of indigenous people through coalitions like Campaign for Survival and Dignity, Naali underpins the nexus of the NGOs, the government and the corporates, as being at the root of the misery of the ethnic populace.[19] With colourful graphics, designed with the help of affordable software like After Effects (Ashok, Dec 2013),[20] Naali illustrates how agendas of a globalized economy such as carbon trading, which incentivizes governments to minimize damage to the environment through reduced emissions, have to be necessarily tied to afforestation in a growing economy like India. This unites the global corporates with the local government with its imperatives of retaining at least thirty per cent of its land as forests. NGOs join in this partnership due to the possibilities of advocating for wildlife conservation and sanctuaries: the irony is that the forest department—the real cause for the erosion of wealth and resources of the mountains and forests—is above scrutiny, but the people who had for centuries lived in harmony with nature and wildlife are getting evicted.

Protest against displacement

Nonetheless, Naali is honest and self-reflexive about its complicity in the disempowerment of the local populace through the dis(re)placement of language. Towards the end of the film, in a spontaneous response to the interviewer, a teenage girl reveals that in their school they are not taught their tribal language but Tamil. Naali, thus, reflexively draws attention to Tamil, which is the language of the people on the plains, as the language of the documentary. As it documents the displacement of the inhabitants of Nilgiri, Naali itself, narrated in a dominant and subsuming language, becomes a reflexive document of the erasure of their language and thereby their disempowerment, which is the conduit to the ethos of their culture. Nonetheless, Murugavel and Lakshmanan have created a space in Naali for quotidian voices to be heard through their retelling of the history of the Nilgiri and its people through the aesthetic of low-end technology. It enables them to strategically retool the ornate paintings and archival photos from the museum, which epitomize the vestiges of the colonizer, the feudal lords, and the decadent kings, as well as the digitally produced high-end technology driven media from the web, exemplifying the façade of globalization, corporates, and the NGOs. They have been successful in keeping the Naali—which means a “stream” in the ethnic language—of protest alive.


Ashok, Telephone Conversation. Oct. 2013.

Ashok, Telephone Conversation. Nov. 2013.

Ashok, Personal Interview. Coimbatore. Jan. 2015.

Bijoy C. R., Grain.org. 26 Oct. 2007.  http://www.grain.org/article/entries/629-c-r-bijoy, date accessed 23 June 2014.

Deprez Camille, “The Films Division of India, 1948-1964: The Early Days and the Influence of the British Documentary Film Tradition”, Film History: An International Journal. 25:3 (2013), pp.149-173.

Jain Anuja, “The Curious Case of the Films Division: Some Annotations on the Beginnings of Indian Documentary Cinema in Postindependence India, 1940s-1960s”, The Velvet Light Trap 71 (Spring 2013), pp. 15-26.

“Jumbo Attacks Again in Coimbatore District.” Deccanchronicle.com 8 Dec. 2013.  http://www.deccanchronicle.com/ 131208/news-current-affairs/article/jumbo-attacks-again, date accessed 8 September 2014.

Lakshmanan, Flyer of Naali. Jan. 2013.

Lakshmanan, Personal Interview. Coimbatore. Jan. 2015.

Mangolte Babette, “Afterwards: A Matter of Time. Analog Versus Digital, the Perennial Question of Shifting Technology and Its Implications for an Experimental Filmmaker’s Odyssey”, in Camera Obscura Camera Lucida: Essays in Honor of Annette Michelson, ed. Richard Allen and Malcolm Turvey (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press) (2003), pp. 261-274.

Manovich Lev, “What is Digital Cinema.” http://manovich.net/index.php/projects/what-is-digital-cinema, date accessed 6 Sept. 2016.

McMullan John, “The Digital Moving Image: Revising Indexicality and Transparency”, in IM 7: Diegetic Life Forms II. Conference Proceedings  (©IM/NASS 2011. ISSN 1833-0533), imjournal.murdoch.edu.au/?media_dl=362, date accessed 3 March 2016.

Murugavel, Personal Interview. Chennai. June 2013.

Murugavel, Personal Interview. Chennai. June 2014.

Murugavel, Telephone Interview. Oct. 2013.

Murugavel, Telephone Interview. Nov. 2013.

Murugavel and Lakshmanan. Naali (2012): Tamil Documentary Movie Part 1, 2, 3, and 4. Online Video. YouTube. 8 Sept. 2012. Web. 10 October. 2014.

Pink Sarah, Doing Visual Ethnography: Images, Media, and Representation in Research, (London: Sage Publications) (2007).

Reporter Staff, “Elephant Herd Marches on Railway Track.” Hindu.com. 19 Dec. 2007, http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-tamilnadu/elephant-herd-marches-on-railway-track/article1970423.ece, date accessed 14 March 2015.

Rodowick D. N., The Virtual Life of Film, (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press) (2007).

Rosen Philip, Change Mummified: Cinema, Historicity, Theory, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) (2001).

Thirunavukkarasu P., Personal Interview, June 2013.

Warrier Shobha, “Where Land Reforms Have Taken Place, There are No Maoists” Rediff. Com. 27 May 2013, http://www.rediff.com/news/interview/an-open-market-with-democracy-is-better-than-communism/20130527.htm, date accessed 15 March 2015.

Wayanad Honeymoon 2, Online Video. YouTube. 1 July 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uUd1mOmlCaI, date accessed 15 March 2015.



[1] This model was released in October 2007 and is not manufactured anymore. In fact, cameras like this marked the end of (mini dv) tape-based video shooting and prefigured the (present DSLR-Digital Single Lens Reflex-era’s) SD (Secure Digital) card usage for shooting and storage. In fact, the Panasonic NV-GS was one of the rare models which offered the choice between a mini dv tape and an SD card to record.

[2] My Personal Interview with P. Thirunavukkarasu, at Chennai, in June 2013.

[3] For the attacks of elephants on villagers, see: “Jumbo Attacks Again in Coimbatore District,” Deccanchronicle.com., 8 Dec. 2013, accessed 8 Sept. 2014. For the conflict between elephants and Forest Department, see: Staff Reporter, “Elephant Herd Marches on Railway Track,” Hindu.com., 19 Dec. 2007, accessed 14 March 2014.

[4]  My Personal Interview with Murugavel at Chennai, in June 2013.

[5] See for details: Lev Manovich, “What is Digital Cinema,” Manovich.net, accessed 6 Sept. 2016.

[6] For details see: John McMullan, “The Digital Moving Image: Revising Indexicality and Transparency”, IM 7: Diegetic Life Forms II, Conference Proceedings (2011).

[7] See for details, Philip Rosen, “Old and New: Image, Indexicality, and Historicity in the Digital Utopia”, in Change Mummified: Cinema, Historicity, Theory, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) (2001), pp. 301- 434. Also see, D.N. Rodowick, The Virtual Life of Film (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press) (2007).

[8] Naali, Directors Murugavel and Lakshmanan, Coimbatore: Kovan Veliyeetagam, 2012, DVD.

[9] Naxalite or Naxalbari movement, which had its origins in Naxalbar village in West Bengal, believes in armed struggle for realizing its revolutionary objectives. See for details on the charisma and influence of the Naxalite leader Verghese: Shobha Warrier, “Where Land Reforms Have Taken Place, There are No Maoists,” Rediff. Com., 27 May 2013, accessed 15 March 2015.

[10] See, for instance, Wayanad Honeymoon 2,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uUd1mOmlCaI, YouTube, July 2009, accessed 15 March 2015.

[11] My telephonic conversation with Naali‘s editor Ashok, Nov. 2013.

[12] See John McMullan, IM 7: Diegetic Life Forms II,  imjournal.murdoch.edu.au/?media_dl=370, p. 13, accessed 3 March 2016.

[13] See for details Babette Mangolte, “Afterwards: A Matter of Time. Analog versus Digital, the Perennial Question of Shifting Technology and Its Implications for an Experimental Filmmaker’s Odyssey” in Camera Obscura Camera Lucida: Essays in Honor of Annette Michelson, ed. Richard Allen and Malcolm Turvey (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press) (2003), pp. 261-274.

[14] John McMullan.

[15] My personal interview with Murugavel, at Chennai, in June 2013.

[16] Personal Interview with Lakshmanan.

[17] In the sequence about the planting of the teak trees by the British, the shots of Nilambur Kovilagam are framed through a handycam and contrasted with classical archival photographs and paintings. Even more striking is the interspersing of the shots taken from inside the car of the passing teak trees as they were at the time of the film’s production in 2012, with other illustrative and ornate images from the past to anchor the narration. Similarly, the brief history of the industrial revolution and the consequent demand for teak in the early 19th century is framed through (museum) paintings, which bookends the shaky handycam shots of the teak trees both in full bloom and after harvest. Thus, there is a remarkably consistent aesthetic of editing which drives Naali from the beginning to the end, even if the documentary borrows heavily from the archival footage to structure its subaltern history.

[18] Ibid. Ref: the photographs published in the brochure distributed. I have done extensive video coverage of the “documentation” done by the NGO’s to update their donors regarding their activities in lieu of the funds that they receive. See, the outtakes of my documentary on Tsunami relief and rehabilitation: Waves from the Deep (2005).

[19] See for details, C.R. Bijoy, Grain.org, http://www.grain.org/article/entries/629-c-r-bijoy, 26 Oct. 2007, accessed 23 June 2014.

[20] My telephonic conversation with Naali‘s editor Ashok, Oct. 2013.

Dr. Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai is an associate professor in the Departments of English, and Media and Information at Michigan State University. He is a graduate from the Film and Television Institute of India, the premier film school in Asia, and has a PhD in film studies from the prestigious University of Iowa. He is an accomplished filmmaker and his recent documentaries include Migrations of Islam (2014) and Hmong Memory at the Crossroads (2015). His research focuses on the history, theory and production of documentaries, and the specificity of Tamil cinema and its complex relationship with Hollywood as well as popular Hindi films. His recent books on cinema are Cinema: Sattagamum Saalaramum (Nizhal, 2013), an anthology of essays on documentaries and experimental films in Tamil and Madras Studios: Narrative, Genre, and Ideology in Tamil Cinema (Sage Publications, 2015).

Minority representation in ‘The Digital’: Narratives from Christian Communities in Delhi

Rajan Benson

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no.1, pp. 21-36

Rajan Benson

MICA, Ahmedabad


Minority representation in ‘The Digital’: Narratives from Christian Communities in Delhi



Technology has become ubiquitous in modern life, propagating digital media as a means to social equity and empowerment. Digital culture is believed to provide opportunities for religious communities to reshape their identity based on virtual group interactions.[1]

The digital universe has provided a platform for Christian minorities to re-represent themselves beyond the mainstream media’s projection of them as a community that uses education, health and other benevolent social services for religious conversion. Such representation has left the Christian community in Delhi victimised by a series of attacks that has taken place since the arrival of the new political regime.

Media houses perceive the attack to be a consequence of ‘Hindutva’ Hindu Nationalist ideology. The communal propaganda of ‘Hindutva’ imposes a parochial notion of purity and a drive for a majoritarian theocratic state, which puts minority religious communities at high risk.

This paper presents the findings of a study conducted with the Christian communities in Delhi. This study represents nine Christian denominations and seeks to understand their digital religious representation. The embodiment of the digital[2] has assisted in empowering as well as oppressing these Christian communities. The new efficacies of digital religious participation have empowered the Christian community to exercise digitally their Constitutional rights of freedom of religion. On the other hand, it has heightened anxiety and fear for digitally active members through online threats and abuses.

Key Words: representation, digital disability, surveillance, anxiety, hindutva, digital bodies, empowerment, christian



The Churches in India are facing a new materiality, bringing alterations to their communication strategies. This digital materiality is a consequence of the growing usage of the smartphone in people’s daily affairs. The materiality here is the objects used for digital life such as, smartphones, laptops, and tablets. The materiality is also applied to move away from the binaries that have emerged between old media and new media. These digital materialities have performance capabilities that have consequences for the embedded reality of its users. The ubiquity of the digital is an embodiment of the same consequences.

The growing use of the Internet by Churches in Delhi has brought new ways to connect with both individuals and groups of Churchgoers that are transcending physical boundaries. The digital Church, brought about by the inclusion of the digital in the functioning of the church, is changing patterns and practices in the physical Church. This digital church reflects the extension of practices from physical to digital format. This movement has emerged with the influx of smartphones in the church that has facilitated increased use of religious applications like Bible apps, commentaries on sacred texts, faith memes, faith videos, and so on. Similarly, social media platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook etc. have also aided in the formation of digital religious communities.

However, the digital is also representing the Churches in its larger socio-political environment. This is also a consequence of growing Internet and smartphone penetration in Indian markets. This growth is most visible in urban spaces, which contain 152 million of India’s active Internet users.[3] In urban spaces, the growing use of social media on smartphones is developing technological perceptions about the medium. These perceptions of managing agency, self-efficacy, and privacy in the ubiquitous digital landscape are proving to be a rich platform for religious institutions to utilise apps for their mandate.

Moreover, the growing access to digital technologies in India has not aided in creating a pluralistic space for religious expression. The preamble to the constitution proclaims India a ‘secular state’. Here ‘secular’ signifies the state’s assistance and participation in all religions equally; unlike the western concept of secularism that separates the religion from the state.

Digital freedom in India is a negotiation between religious and political concerns. Religious freedom is represented in the constitutional rights as “Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion”.[4] Technology as a medium has played a crucial role in the freedom to propagate one’s own religion. However, the potential of the medium to both stir communal riots by hurting religious sentiment and become an instrument of worship through Holy Scriptural apps and Daily devotional content makes the medium an authority in the religious space.

India is witnessing a new form of religious intolerance. This competitiveness has become unsavoury when individuals have been abused, harassed, and killed for converting to another religion, despite the constitutional safeguard in Article 25, which states, “All persons are equally entitled to freedom of consciousness and the right to freely profess, practice, and propagate religion”.[5]

Christianity in contemporary times is closely tied with the digital. The online space has become a space for assimilation of religious groups; some of these online sites propagate mutually exclusive and fundamentalist viewpoints that have triggered violent communal tensions offline. The Christian community in Delhi is anxious as they are at the receiving end of physical violence from Hindutva forces. Hindutva is another name for Hindu nationalism; a term coined by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. One of the most pertinent events of Hindutva was the Ayodhya Ramjanmabhumi mobilisation. The belief of the Hindu extremists of Ayodhya, which is the birthplace of Lord Ram, led to the demolition of Babri Masjid in December 1992. During this event, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rose to prominence as the electoral instrument of Hindutva. Since then, Hindutva has been juxtaposed with communalism on the basis of religion, race, and so on. There is a feeling that Hindutva groups are waging a large-scale campaign of hate against Christians and Muslim minority groups.[6] These expressions are spilling over onto digital spaces, where Christian communities are seeking ways to exercise their civic rights through participatory actions.

 Theoretical Framework

Digital Conceptions

 Smartphones have achieved an intimacy with users that incorporates the self and the external world.[7] The networked digital world blurs the boundaries between public and private spaces, depending on the way the apps represent the individual. As Mark Poster argues, “culture is increasingly simulational in the sense that the media often changes the things that it treats, transforming the identity of originals and referentialities”.[8] Smartphones have become so intertwined into our day-to-day affairs that the way they represent content becomes our conception of reality.[9] Smartphones have become part of the meaning making process; the cognition of meanings establishes the intensity of personal interactions on a device.[10]

The sheer pervasiveness of digital gadgets[11] is encouraging the clergy to use it to meet the Church’s evangelical mandates.[12] Smartphones have enabled a deeply personal and emotional form of social interaction. The unavoidability of the device is the popular narrative about the inclusion of social media apps in the life of churches. The use of representational apps in the church has a similar functional capacity to projecting the self in a public sphere.

The mediation of faith as an extension of one’s body is reflected with smartphones.[13] This is because the materiality of the smartphone extends to its functionality and this in turn is inclusive of relationships, cognitions, public representations, and emotional responses in social digital networks. The urban Church is an information-intensive environment that is driven by hyper-fast content creation and distribution. This pattern is a self-reinforcing system that is socially-technologically interweaving in nature. Digital materiality has formed ways of life by the “irreducible relation between technologies, embodiment, knowledge and perception”.[14] This is evident among the youth, who are constantly engaged with digital devices that are a part of their existence. This exists as a socio-technical hybrid where the body and screen are constantly gazing at each other, acting like mirrors and windows into reality. The content one shares becomes a window for others to look into and likewise the representation is a mirror of the self. Thus, the Church, seeking to influence and guide people in their religious journey, wants to access these windows so that it can shape the core values of its congregation. Ideally, the church aspires to see its beliefs and values mirrored in peoples’ virtual lives.


 This study is grounded in the premise that access to reality can be gained through socially constructed means of communication that are shared through language.[15] This research applies the narrative paradigm. Narratives are defined as interpretations of an individual’s experience that have contextual focus.[16] These narratives are guided by the affective lens in representing transcendent encounters and mobilisations. I conducted 70 in-depth interviews across churches in Delhi to understand the new digital culture that is driving minority community participation in the public sphere. The in-depth interview was chosen as the basic mode of inquiry because it can portray affective traces when the individual recounts narratives that consequently lead to their participation.


Public Sphere and Participatory Action

 The public sphere carries the possibility of large congregations of crowds that provide visibility to certain groups and their issues. This idea of the public sphere as argued by Habermas is a consequence of the rise of democracy, which provides space for congregating and passing collective judgement on issues.[17] Visibility lies at the core of being public, which is unobstructed visibility.[18] To gain such visibility, protests and mobilisation have traditionally been used to represent the concerns and voices of the marginalised in society.

The history of protest and mobilisation has not prominently featured the Indian Christian community. During the struggle for Independence, Gandhi’s criticism of the Christian community was grounded in the effect of fragmentation it had on lower caste communities. This, according to Gandhi, “undermined unity and mobilisation among these depressed classes in the nationalist movement”.[19] However, small groups such as the Presbyterian mission schools in Punjab protested actively against the British government through demonstrations and strikes against the Rowlatt Bill of 1919.[20] This active political participation by the Presbyterian community was the exception, as they did not participate in the subsequent Satyagraha movement. In Lahore, the Presbyterian community is known to have sided with the British government as the British were seen as a Christian government that had protected the interests of the missionaries from the start.[21]

Nonetheless, the Christian missions were attributed with changing social status and allowing mobility among certain repressed groups in colonial times. The Nadar’ women, who were not allowed to cover their breasts, found support from the Christian missionaries who used the language of Christian modesty and womanly decency to uphold the Nadar’s protests.[22] Another instance of Christian intervention was through the Jesuits, who supported the low caste ‘Shanars’ in opposition to the high caste ‘Vellalars’, who wanted a barrier built in the Church to segregate them from the ‘Shanars’.[23] These are the only documented cases of Christian groups standing up for the underprivileged in the public sphere during Colonial rule.[24]

The post-Colonial phase has seen the influence of liberation theologists from Latin America. They influenced participation in the public sphere through the fish worker movement in Kerala and the Dalit Christian movement. This movement can be traced from 1977, when the Latin Catholic Fisherman’s Federation wrote a memorandum to the Chief Minister of Kerala, to 1993, when the Supreme Court announced the decision to ban monsoon-trawling operations.[25]

Delhi has also witnessed Christian movements in the public sphere. One such movement took place on 18th November 1995, when the Christian community congregated at Sacred Heart Cathedral to demonstrate against the biased treatment of Dalit Christians.[26] The protest was in the form of a prayer meeting, which was attended by Mother Teresa and a large number of Bishops and Priests who were protesting for the inclusion of Dalit Christians as Schedule Caste.[27] This protest was complemented by Christian Schools across the country, which remained closed for the day. September 26th 2008 saw another instance of public protests to show solidarity towards a Christian community that faced the brunt of communal violence in Orissa.[28] This seven-day protest and prayer meeting at Jantar Mantar was well represented by people of different faiths and political parties.[29]  However, these mobilisations have done little to ease the threats and anxieties felt by the minority community. The past two decades have been replete with narratives of growing violence against the Christian community. There has been a marked increase in instances of burning of Churches and Bibles, attacks on Priests, raping of Nuns, forcible reconversions to Hinduism, and aggressive anti-Christian propaganda by Hindutva groups.[30]

For any community facing atrocities, urban spaces have become the epicentre for democratic expression. The urban site draws attention to the cause and provides space—especially to minority groups—to become visible in the public sphere. Delhi—as the capital of India—has historically been an urban centre where the politics of nation state have been enacted. Due to its status as the capital of the nation, Delhi is represented as a site of imagination, desire and imaging. The public sphere of Delhi is an idea where hope for genuine democracy and social justice dwells alongside a space that shapes the potential future of the nation. This public sphere has rarely witnessed the participation of Christian communities at the sites of protest, where popular political deliberations often play themselves out. The public sphere in Delhi primarily encompasses spaces near the Parliament House, which is also close to major news agencies. Proximity to the site of protest gives the new agencies ease of access to issues they would like to cover. This space has seen people from across India converge to voice their grievances. This space saw the massive mobilisation of Christians on 2nd December 2014 and 5th February 2015 that  were made possible by the ‘Whatsapp’ application. When queried about the mobilization, the youth leader responded, “Whatsapp has made it easy for us to get people together, especially for protests, as it’s about our democratic right and people want to participate for such causes when they feel the Church is under attack”[31]. This mobilisation was a result of continued attacks on Churches in Delhi. The Christian community perceived these attacks to be orchestrated by Hindutva forces. India, in the last two decades, has witnessed the electorally beneficial strategy of communal violence and polarisation on the part of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The advocates of Hindutva harbour differences against three groups. They perceive Christians, Muslims and Communists groups as a subversion of national integration as these groups are loyal to foreign forces (Rome, Mecca and Moscow).[32] Under the current Government, there has been growing spate of attacks against anything Christian as it symbolizes a different culture and ideology from that of Hindutva. With BJP—a strong Hindutva proponent assuming governing control—most communal tensions are seen to be a result of distinct interests and pursuing of divergent aims.

The Christian mobilisation on 5th February received countrywide mainstream media coverage. The mobilization was a consequence of growing instances of violence against the Christian community in the three months prior to 5th February 2015. In these three months, there were 45 documented incidents of violence against the Christian community, where the perpetrators were identified as members of Hindutva groups.[33]

The large-scale media coverage of these protests was a consequence of the government forcefully overthrowing protestors from the public sphere. The use of brutal force by the police drew media criticism and attention to the plight of the Christian community. The police were criticised for using violence on elderly people, priests, and nuns on the site of protest. The police detained 350 people at the site.[34] The violence against the Christian community also made visible Hindutva’s privileged impunity under the current government. This feeling of impunity is primarily due to police bias and unwillingness to adequately investigate and arrest the perpetrators of communal violence.[35] This inaction was evident once again with the crackdown on Christian protesters.

On one hand, the growing prevalence of smartphones in Churches enabled quick circulation of instances of violence against the community. On the other hand, it led to more anxiety and fear within the community. This two-fold consequence is a by-product of the growing access to information related to the growing atrocities faced by the community. However, there is also evidence of direct participatory action by the community in the face of such adversity. Individuals have taken to social media to express their discord as members of the Christian community who have been denied their fundamental rights. These digital participatory measures have also faced backlash from supporters of Hindutva in social media pages. Therefore, the public sphere is a mixed reality of digital and physical suppression of voices from the Christian community.

 Minority and Digital Participatory Action

 The digital conceptions of self are manufactured with a sense of immediacy, proximity and urgency. This digital conception of self is shaping the imagination of the urban minority youth. The digital was seen by Christian youth as a promise of individual freedom, a kernel for seeking social justice and a space for peaceful democratic participation.

However, WhatsApp inspired mobilisation and the subsequent digital harassment against the community has exposed the limitations of the digital promise. The standard of nationalism and ownership of public space is disproportionally held by the majoritarian religious body. The majority controls the mainstream media and has greater representation as well as greater cultural control of the public sphere. The attempts by Christian minority communities to gain visibility in the public space has come at the cost of facing more instances of violence by the state in order to gain visibility from mainstream media. The Churches felt this lack of representation in the mainstream and turned to digital media spaces such as Facebook to gain visibility for their grievances. For instance, one of the respondents stated,

Recently, when church attacks happened, it was WhatsApp that helped us. The media did not show anything. So, the next day, when there was a protest, people came because of WhatsApp, which is why there were many people to support us. The use of Facebook is mostly for publicising the church and to present it in a good light. We have recently used Facebook to draw attention to the incident of Church burning and the violence we face as Christians etc. We do a lot of events in church, so we use it primarily for publicity.[36]

The scope of publicity through Facebook has seen limited mutual dialogue among religious communities. However, according to a Catholic priest, for the Christian community as a whole, the Facebook space has educated people and brought about support for their minority existence. He stated,

Like when we had Churches burnt in Dilshad garden, I had addressed the people for a public gathering and that was through Facebook and that inspired people to join the protest group next day. So through constructive criticism and planning, the public gathering took place and it all happened on social media. On 1st December, after the Dilshad Garden Church was burnt down we had a wonderful agitation in Delhi just by the involvement of people through social networking before the public gathering on 2nd December. Likewise, on 5th of February, Whatsapp helped us in getting people together.[37]

The possibility of organising dissent quickly around common feelings of victimhood made it simpler to gather people for collective action with the aid of social media. Social media platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook aided authority figures of the Church to make their networks understand the struggles of the Christian minority. It also provides a space for narratives of hope to fight against the injustices and take a united political stand in the public sphere. While discussing the role of the digital, another Priest highlighted how sometimes minority communities trust their WhatsApp more than mainstream media. They feel that mainstream media has ignored their plight. Therefore, when there is a call to action on WhatsApp, people respond in large numbers. WhatsApp has a trust factor and these mobilisations are a testament to this reality.

When it came to attacks and protests, we used only WhatsApp. People turned out in 3,000s and 4,000s and just one day before. Like the church was burnt in Dilshad Garden on 1st and the protest was on 2nd and due to WhatsApp we had a huge turnout.[38]

Thus, the possibility of mobilising in the public sphere and asking for equality under the law is the reality of social media empowerment within the Christian community in Delhi.

However, members of the Christian minority that have taken to social media to condemn the continuation of violence and harassment at the hand of extremist organisations are facing threats to their lives and that of their loved ones. One of the church leaders explains his experience of voicing his opinion online against church attacks.

When I posted about a famous Malayalam author, I get 1,000 likes, but when I post on the current government and its draconian ruling with criticism, I receive just six likes. However, I do get people calling me and telling me how great an article it was. Then my question is, “why did you not like it on Facebook, let alone comment?” This is because I have been identified by the Hindutva forces as someone who spews venom about Hindus and forcefully converts people. Abuses and violent acts towards me I can tolerate but when they go after my daughter, my wife, my friend who is the head of the parish, even his wife and so on who are closely related to me, I am terrified and they all are constantly threatened because of this. Moreover even liking my comments puts people on the blacklist of Hindutva.[39]

This visibility in the digital public sphere is also disempowering as it provides access to some majoritarian force to repress an individual digitally. The mobilisation led to leaders of the Christian community meeting the Home minister of India. The picture that was tweeted by the Home minister received numerous comments targeting the same Informant who was made visible in the interview picture shared (Fig 1.1, Fig 1.2, Fig 1.3).

Fig. 2
Fig. 3

These images of comments show the ease of recognition that certain Christian figures enjoy in the digital sphere. Majoritarian supporters of Hindutva are constantly silencing the voices of the minority in social media. This is done through the sheer number of comments and content which makes the digital media content skewed towards their ideology. Effectively, the overbearing narrative of the tech-empowered, hate-mongering Hindutva supporter supersedes the right of the Christian minority to be represented with dignity and equality. These members of the Christian community feel vilified and harassed online when they present their opinions digitally. A growing culture of group defamation that minority communities face in their digital encounters.

This has led to the proliferation of WhatsApp as the dominant social media tool as it is embedded in closed groups and inter-personal conversations. All the Christian communities in Delhi are active and expressing themselves on the WhatsApp network instead of Facebook and Twitter. This is an escapist approach in the digital public sphere as growing narratives of prejudices and discrimination online are disempowering the minority.

Nonetheless, there is also a positive take on the growing oppressive environment. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, which has a long tradition of intervening in the political domain, India has no such tradition. This is because there is no consensual centralised Christian authority that could claim to speak on behalf of the entire Christian population. This perceived lack of unity between the Christian groups has seen leadership positively approach the new instances of violence.

I think so far—whatever has happened—I am damn happy it has happened. I think it is a call from above. We need to wake up, we need to get united, we need to realise what we are Christians and forget the segregations. There is no way that this government can put us down or shut us down. Now with social media we are more connected, therefore it is easier for us to come together as a united community. Well, there is a greater majority of people who are not too positive and they probably feel threatened. But I think they need to be more optimistic and I think there is enough strength in our belief to not just carry us forward, to make us sail forward and grow.[40]

The digital divide in urban spaces is closing down and the Christian community can be optimistic and realistic about the progress it can achieve as a united community. There is recognition of growing fear and anxiety in the community with the increased instances of violence. However, social media is being understood as a dialogical tool that can bring together the dispersed community for political participation.

The religious digital space and its communities are recognising that through inhabitation of the machines, humans come to life. There is a religious element of perpetual contact, which is enabled by smartphones as a medium of communication. These mediums of communication—when affectively induced—begin to approximate a ‘pure communication’ where one mind is shared and connected with others in their digital community.[41] The belief is to generate this oneness in the Christian community so that they can stand up together as a political force against oppressive regimes in power. The mobilisation on the 5th February is attributed to this connection of mind and awareness through digital devices about the Christian community as a whole coming under attack.

This connection of mind, according to Dong-Hoo Lee, is a consequence of ‘hyper-connection’ and ‘hyper-awareness’ of others in the digital religious community.[42] This hyper-existence with digital-religious logic affectively alters an individual’s engagement in the virtual. The smartphone engages the sensorimotor in a continuous manner, such as the engagement brought about by watching breaking news about violence against the Christian community. The installation of news channel apps is prevalent in the church communities; therefore, they are always connected to media narratives regarding atrocities committed by extremist groups.

This study also showed how narratives of church attacks and persecution led to an increased number of prayer requests across churches in Delhi. On average, the leaderships of the Churches were part of eight groups. Therefore, they were always able to narrate stories of persecution in Church meetings and share narratives of persecution on WhatsApp groups. Such narratives of being persecuted touches, moves and mobilises individuals in the digitally lived religion.

As shown above, these narratives of being persecuted also brought forth physical mobilisation in the networks of the larger community. The hyper-existence makes us affected by the content that we constantly turn to on our phones. The digital materiality interplays with our feelings and desires to generate bodily alterations to take us into participatory action in our technologically embodied life.


 This study shows how the Christian communities in Delhi have been increasingly receiving forwarded messages in their WhatsApp groups that are more cautionary in nature. As congregation members explained, “A year back it was more positive but now it’s more fearful. It’s because of political reason”.[43]

This is due to the proliferation of smartphone and promulgated content that alarms the minority community. The WhatsApp influx has content circulating of the Hindutva war cry ‘Pehle Kasi, Phir Isai’ (first the butchers (Muslims), then the Christians). The sharing of such discourse of hatred towards the community has increased the levels of anxiety in the community. The digital space is also having a detrimental impact on the communities’ ability to express itself in the public sphere. This phenomenon is visible on Facebook and Twitter as they are broadcasting media. Simultaneously, closed group options of Facebook and WhatsApp have empowered minority groups to assemble and demand their constitutional rights. The digital public sphere is embedded with disempowering traits for the minority groups. However, the digital in the form of closed groups has worked to generate courage and support to stand up against the atrocities faced by the Christian community.

The Digital India initiative under Prime Minister Narendra Modi needs to protect digital minorities. The Magna Carta for Digital India is currently engaging with issues of net neutrality, quality of service, security and privacy. However, affording dignity and equality in terms of digital participation to minority groups is a constitutional mandate of which the current government has fallen short.

This systematic exclusion in the public sphere of minority groups will breed resentment. Therefore, there is a need to provide space for the minorities in a co-existing public sphere. Co-existence is accompanied by adoption, and this adoption is dependent on mutual dialogue that premises the understanding of another’s vocabulary. Therefore, it is imperative to allow minorities to voice themselves and their concerns in the digital and physical public spaces.



Barua Arun, Debating ‘Conversion’ in Hinduism and Christianity, (New York: Routledge) (2015).

Cazarniawska Barbara, Narratives in Social Science Research, (London: Sage) (2004).

Cederöf Gunnel, “Anticipating Independent India: The Idea of the Lutheran Christian Nation and Indian Nationalism”, in India and the Indianness of Christianity: Essays on Understanding- Historical, Theological, and Bibliographical in Honour of  Robert Eric Frykenberg, ed. Richard Fox Young (Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co) (2009).

Chester Tim, Will You Be My Facebook Friend? (Leyland: 10Publishing) (2013).

Constitution Society, Fundamental Rights, http://www.constitution.org/cons/india/p03025.html date accessed 1 April, 2016.

Crouch Andy, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press) (2008).

Dayal John. 100 Days Under the New Regime The State of Minorities: A Report, (New Delhi: Anhad) (2014).

Denzin K Norman & Lincoln S Yvonne, “Introduction: The Discipline and Practice of Qualitative Research”, in Collecting and interpreting qualitative materials, ed. Denzin K Norman and Lincoln S Yvonne, (Thousand Oaks California: Sage) (2003).

FICCI-KPMG, “#shooting for the stars,” Indian Media and Entertainment Industry Report 2015, 2015,  http://www.kpmg.com/IN/en/IssuesAndInsights/ArticlesPublications/Documents/FICCI-KPMG_2015.pdf,  date accessed 23 January 2016.

Frykenberg Eric Robert, Christianity in India: From Beginnings to the Present, (New York: Oxford University Press) (2008).

Gershon IIana, The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting over new media, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press) (2010).

Gonsalves, Anup Antonio, For these Christians in India, peaceful protests led to jail time. Catholic News Agency http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/for-these-christians-in-india-peaceful-protests-led-to-jail-time-33566/ date accessed 20 March 2016.

Government of India, The Constitution of India: Part III Fundamental Rights, https://india.gov.in/sites/upload_files/npi/files/coi_part_full.pdf, date accessed 26 January 2016.

Habermas Jürgen [1962], “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society,” Translated by  Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence, (Cambridge: Polity) (1989).

Hansen B N Mark, Bodies in Code: Interfaces with Digital Media, (New York: Routledge) (2006).

Hepp Andreas, Cultures of mediatization, translated by Keith Tribe, (Cambridge: Polity) (2013).

James D Jonathan, McDonaldisation, Masala McGospel, and om economics televangelism in contemporary India (New Delhi: SAGE Publications) (2010).

Kanjamalai Augustine, The Future of Chrisitan Mission in India: Towards a New Paradigm For the Third Millennium, (New Delhi: Pickwick Publications) (2014).

Katz E James and Aakhus A Mark, “Conclusion: Making meaning of mobiles – A theory of apparatgeist”, in Perpetual contact: Mobile communication, private talk, public performance, ed. James Katz and Mark Aakhus, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) (2002).

Lee Dong-Hoo, “In bed with the iPhone: The iPhone and hypersociality in Korea”, in Studying mobile media: Cultural technologies, mobile communication and the iPhone, ed. Larrisa Hjorth, Jean Burgess and Ingrid Richardson, (New York: Routledge) (2012).

Lindsay Robert, India: Hell on Earth. Beyond Highbrow https://robertlindsay.wordpress.com/2011/07/22/india-hell-on-earth/ date accessed 9 April, 2016.

Manen Van Max, Researching lived experiences: Human Science for an Action Sensitive Pedagogy, (New York: State University of New York Press) (1990).

Mathews D Rohan, Fish workers Movement in Kerela, India. Dialogues, proposals, stories for global citizenship, http://base.d-p-h.info/en/fiches/dph/fiche-dph-8852.html date accessed 16 March 2016.

Miller James, “The fourth screen: Mediatization and the smartphone”, Mobile Media & Communication  2:2, (2014).

Mukhia Harbans, The Mughals of India, (Oxford: Blackwell) (2004).

Myers D Michael, Qualitative Research in Business & Management, (London: Sage) (2009).

Nahon Karine and Barzilai Gad, “Cultured Technology: Internet and Religious Fundamentalism”, The Information Society, Forthcoming, http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2207679 date accessed  28 March 2016.

Neil Stephen, A history of Christianity in India: The Beginnings to AD 1707 (New Delhi: Cambridge University Press) (2004).

Ollerenshaw Anne Jo, Creswell W John, “Narrative Research: A Comparison of Two Restorying Data Analysis Approaches”, Qualitative Inquiry 8:3: (2002).

Osuri Goldie, Religious Freedom in India: Sovereignty and (anti) Conversion, (New York: Routledge) (2012).

Palmer Daniel, “iPhone photography: Mediating visions of social space”, in Studying mobile media: Cultural technologies, mobile communication and the iPhone, ed. Larrisa Hjorth, Jean Burgess and Ingrid Richardson, (New York: Routledge) (2012).

Pathak Vikas, Delhi Church Attacks: Reaction was Motivated says RSS Forum, The Hindu. http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/delhi-church-attacks-reaction-was-motivated-says-rss-forum/article7874531.ece date accessed  25 March 2016.

Poster Mark, The second media age, (Cambridge: Blackwell) (1995).

Reissman Kohler Catherine, Narrative Analysis. Qualitative Research Methods, (Newbury Park: Sage Publications) (1993).

Richardson Ingrid, “Touching the screen: A phenomenology of mobile gaming and the iPhone”, in Studying mobile media: Cultural technologies, mobile communication and the iPhone, ed. Larrisa Hjorth, Jean Burgess and Ingrid Richardson, (New York: Routledge) (2012).

Robinson Rowena, Christians of India (New Delhi: Sage Publications) (2013).

Saha Devanik, Digital inequality warning sounded for urban India, Scroll.in, http://scroll.in/article/804860/digital-inequality-warning-sounded-for-urban-india, date accessed 10 March 2016.

Taylor Steve, The out of bound church? Learning to Create a Community of Faith in a Culture of Change, (El Cajon: Zondervan Publishing House) (2005).

Turkle Sherry, The second self: Computers and the human spirit, (Cambridge: MIT Press) (2005).

Turkle Sherry, Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other, (New York: Basic Books) (2011).

United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Annual Report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

http://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/USCIRF%20Annual%20Report%202015%20%282%29.pdf date accessed March 10, 2016.

Varela J. Franscisco, “The Specious Present: A Neurophenomenology of Time Consciousness”, in Naturalizing Phenomenology: Issues in Contemporary Phenomenology and Cognitive Science  ed. Franscisco J Varela, Barnard Pachoud, Jean Petitot, and Jean-Michel Roy (Stanford: Stanford University Press) (1999).

Webster, B.C. John, “Missionary Strategy and the Development of the Christian Community: Delhi 1859-1884” in Popular Christianity in India: Riting between Lines, ed. Selva J Raj & Corinne G Dempsey (New York: State University of New York Press) (2002).



[1] Sherry Turkle, Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other, (New York: Basic Books) (2011), p. 2.

[2] When speaking of ‘the digital’, I am using it as an adjective because in its usage one can never consider it as exclusively digital. Here the experience of the digital is mediated through an individual’s physical expression through touching the screen, looking at the content displayed, and so on. The reason behind using the digital as digital space is that the experience of reality in this technical age is also a part of the metaspace. This article is dealing with this metaspace. Hence, ‘digital’ must be read as the digital space.

[3] FICCI-KPMG, p. 99.

[4] Government of India, The Constitution of India: Part III Fundamental Rights, https://india.gov.in/sites/upload_files/npi/files/coi_part_full.pdf, date accessed 26 January 2016.

[5] Constitution Society, Fundamental Rights,

 http://www.constitution.org/cons/india/p03025.html date accessed on 1 April, 2016.

[6]Vikas Pathak, Delhi Church Attacks: Reaction was Motivated says RSS Forum, The Hindu. http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/delhi-church-attacks-reaction-was-motivated-says-rss-forum/article7874531.ece date accessed  25 March 2016.

[7]Sherry Turkle, The second self: Computers and the human spirit, (Cambridge: MIT Press) (2005), p. 25.

[8] Mark Poster, The second media age, (Cambridge: Blackwell) (1995), p. 30.

[9] IIana Gershon, The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting over new media, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press) (2010), p. 3.

[10] Andreas Hepp, Cultures of mediatization, Translated by Keith Tribe, (Cambridge: Polity) (2013), p. 71.

[11] James Miller, p. 213.

[12] Steve Taylor, p. 25.

[13] James Miller, p. 217.

[14] Ingrid Richardson, “Touching the screen: A phenomenology of mobile gaming and the iPhone.” in Studying mobile media: Cultural technologies, mobile communication and the iPhone, ed. Larrisa Hjorth, Jean Burgess and Ingrid Richardson, (New York: Routledge) (2012), p. 135.

[15] Michael D. Myers, Qualitative Research in Business & Management, (London: Sage) (2009), p. 80.

[16] Anne Jo Ollerenshaw, John W. Creswell, “Narrative Research: A Comparison of Two Restorying Data Analysis Approaches”, Qualitative Inquiry 8:3: (2002), p. 330; Cazarniawska Barbara, Narratives in Social Science Research, (London: Sage) (2004), p. 8.

[17] Jürgen Habermas [1962], “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society,” Translated by  Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence, (Cambridge: Polity) (1989), p. 26.

[18] Jürgen Habermas, p. 4.

[19] Gunnel Cederöf, “Anticipating Independent India: The Idea of the Lutheran Christian Nation and Indian Nationalism”, in India and the Indianness of Christianity: Essays on Understanding- Historical, Theological, and Bibliographical in Honour of  Robert Eric Frykenberg, ed. Richard Fox Young (Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co) (2009), p. 211.

[20] Gunnel Cederöf, p. 206.

[21] Gunnel Cederöf, p. 206.

[22] Rowena Robinson, Christians of India (New Delhi: Sage Publications) (2013), p. 90.

[23] Rowena Robinson, p. 77.

[24] Rowena Robinson, p. 173.

[25] Rohan D. Mathews, Fish workers Movement in Kerela, India. Dialogues, proposals, stories for global citizenship, http://base.d-p-h.info/en/fiches/dph/fiche-dph-8852.html date accessed 16 March 2016.

[26] Rowena Robinson, p. 189.

[27] Rowena Robinson, p. 189.

[28] Augustine Kanjamalai, The Future of Chrisitan Mission in India: Towards a New Paradigm For the Third Millennium, (New Delhi: Pickwick Publications) (2014), p. 108.

[29] Augustine Kanjamalai.

[30] Augustine Kanjamalai, p. 114.

[31] Catholic Informant. Interview by author. Transcript 4, New Delhi. October 8, 2015.

[32]Arun Barua, Debating ‘Conversion’ in Hinduism and Christianity, (New York: Routledge) (2015), p. 15.

[33] Arun Barua.

[34] Antonio Anup Gonsalves, For these Christians in India, peaceful protests led to jail time. Catholic News Agency http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/for-these-christians-in-india-peaceful-protests-led-to-jail-time-33566/ date accessed 20 March 2016.

[35] United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Annual Report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Retrieved from http://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/USCIRF%20Annual%20Report%202015%20%282%29.pdf date accessed March 10, 2016.

[36] Catholic Informant. Interview by author. Transcript 26, New Delhi. October 26, 2015.

[37] Catholic Informant. Interview by author. Transcript 11, New Delhi. September 15, 2015.

[38] Catholic Informant. Interview by author. Transcript 12, New Delhi. September 10, 2015.

[39] Catholic Informant. Interview by author. Transcript 13, New Delhi. September 12, 2015.

[40] Catholic Informant. Interview by author. Transcript 6, New Delhi. September 28, 2015.

[41] James E. Katz, Mark A. Aakhus, “Conclusion: Making meaning of mobiles – A theory of apparatgeist”, in Perpetual contact: Mobile communication, private talk, public performance, ed. James Katz and Mark Aakhus, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) (2002), pp. 307–312.

[42]Dong-Hoo Lee, “In bed with the iPhone: The iPhone and hypersociality in Korea”, in Studying mobile media: Cultural technologies, mobile communication and the iPhone, ed. Larrisa Hjorth, Jean Burgess and Ingrid Richardson, (New York: Routledge) (2012), p. 68.

[43] Protestant Informant. Interview by author. Transcript 6, New Delhi. September 4, 2015.


Benson Rajan is a communications doctoral scholar from MICA. He has completed his Masters in Media Governance and Bachelors in Sociology from Jamia Milia Islamia University and Delhi University respectively.

After completing his Masters in Media Governance he continued his advocacy for media literacy and passion for teaching critical media studies. His research focuses on studying the relationship between technology, society and religion. He had also worked towards directing the documentary Internet Privacy: China sponsored state Hacking of Indian Computers built on the reports Tracking GhostNet: Investigating a Cyber Espionage Network and Shadows in the Cloud: Investigating Cyber Espionage 2.0. He has published his works on faith memes analyzing authority as reflected in the social media of churches in New Delhi and Affective Use of Smartphones. For the last four years he has been exploring Digital Religion and affective communication in India.

He is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Media Studies in Christ University, Bangalore, India.

Shaming and socially responsible online engagement

Shadow W.J. Armfield, Dawn M. Armfield, Laura O. Franklin

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 1, pp. 37-49

Shadow W.J. Armfield

Northern Arizona University

Dawn M. Armfield

Minnesota State University, Mankato

Laura O. Franklin

Wayne State College



Shaming and socially responsible online engagement



The implementation of social media environments has exacerbated the use and visibility of degrading language and imagery, and shaming in online spaces is often different from that in face-to-face environments. Those who shame can hide behind anonymity or create images that are not associated with any one person, but that target a specific person or group of people. This research investigates ways in which shaming is used in social media and develops an argument for why and how it must be addressed within the learning environment. Teachers and students, working collaboratively, can create learning environments, including face-to-face and online interactions that involve positive digital citizenship, quality learning, and increasingly advanced communication skills.

Key words: memes, digital citizenship, online communication, popular media



In 1976 Richard Dawkins[1] coined the term ‘meme’ to describe how certain ideas spread to become part of a common belief structure. He argued that whether the idea is true or not, it often comes to be seen as valid. While the idea of the meme was not meant for the digital social networking age, it has been co-opted and used to combine short ideas with imagery. Dawkins[2] sees this as a valid use because “the meaning is not that far away from the original”. Social networking sites (SNS) are not only used for personal communications, but also for school activities in which individuals use language and imagery for communication. While the majority of posts are often innocuous, some can be hurtful and damaging, even visually depicting hateful and violent acts[3]. Such posts break down the core purpose of SNS, which is to spread engagement, connectedness, and social development.

When scanning social media feeds, readers will be hard-pressed not to find posts, memes, and videos degrading specific demographics and communities. From images of two women wearing t-shirts with “This is what a Feminist Looks like”, which has text below the image stating “Feminist: When no guy wants to touch you”, to imperatives like “The smell of cigarettes and shitty cologne, come out Persians we know you are here”, social media is used to shame ‘others’ from a wide swath of global culture. The constant flow of humiliating and potentially violent information presented on sites with quick reposts and little analysis, encouraging ‘likes’, ‘favourites’, or other positive reinforcements makes such posts appear innocuous. The simple act of posting and reposting declarations of inequity and dominance has reinvigorated the role of shaming in public environments.

While language has often been used to devalue and disempower others, the implementation of SNS environments has exacerbated the use and visibility of degrading language and imagery. Bitch, faggot, retard (including fucktard and other variations), and other defamatory monikers are used not only to shame the individuals to whom the language is aimed, but also to degrade the populations the words are meant to represent. By comparing someone to another group with a negative connotation, composers of information are implicitly stating that the groups to whom the individual is compared are worth less than the composer is and, as an extension, the general population[4]. The stigma of marginalization often leads to disengaging from the medium and decreasing the engagement, connectedness, and social development of those marginalized. Technologies, as dis-emancipatory engines, can often increase the scope and effect of this marginalization and shackle the ‘others’ to the negative connotations for as long as the technologies retain data.

SNS Inquiry and Methods

This research began as a study in shaming targeted at children with disabilities in online spaces. However, as the study progressed, the inclusion of different demographics and self-shaming—because of its impact within the social media platforms for the original poster and the audiences who read the posts—became apparent. The method of data collection for this research was qualitative in nature, drawing from memes posted on SNS by reviewing feeds in various SNS. The 124 examples of visual shaming in memes were collected over the course of one year, from 2014-2015, from various social media and online organizations including Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, the Secret app, the YikYak app, Whisper, Buzzfeed, and others. Samples were selected by reviewing memes that focused on marginalized demographics, such as memes that used women, people with disabilities, or sexual orientation as their object of ridicule. The examples were collected by two researchers, one in Arizona, the other in Maryland. For location specific apps, like Secret, YikYak, and Whisper, samples were collected while in various locations, especially near college and university campuses, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico, Minnesota, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, to determine if location was a mitigating factor in shaming. The research revealed that location did not have an impact on the types of shaming or the amounts of shaming that occurred, but was focused more on demographic specificity. For instance, African Americans were often targeted in the Mid-Atlantic region of the US while they were not targeted elsewhere. The researchers then used content analysis of the text and images, through a social semiotic lens, to determine how the content focused on marginalized peoples and the ‘othering’ of those individuals. As the researchers approached the research with predefined ideas about the effects and creation of the communication, it was determined that the social semiotic approach would allow a better way of assessing how the images create marginalization and othering, rather than the subconscious biased approach of the researchers. The social semiotic approach is, as Jewitt and Oyama state, “a description of semiotic resources, what can be said and done with images, and how the things people say and do with images can be interpreted”[5].

The researchers used content analysis to develop understandings of the visual data collected. Margolis and Pauwels suggest that in visual research content analysis is “a taxonomic and counting strategy for determining the relative frequency of certain representations within groups of images”[6]. Content analysis is “based on a number of rules and procedures that must be rigorously followed for the analysis of images or texts to be reliable”[7]. The resultant themes from the content analysis are then used to answer the questions below that the researchers posed to determine the validity of the research being conducted:

  1. Are memes being used to shame?
  2. How are memes being used to shame?
  3. How do technologies compound shame?
  4. How can we—as researchers and teachers—change the ways memes and other online communications are used to decrease shaming in online spaces?

In order to answer these questions, understanding social media, shaming, and memes had to be explored, as did determining a method for working with learners to combat shaming and develop SNS environments free from marginalization.

Social Media and Homogeneity

Social media has revolutionized the ways we can communicate with one another. From simple text-oriented messages through long-form writing to visual communication, the advent of social media has changed the ways we share and interact. Not only has the shape of the communication changed, but also the speed of that communication has changed. For instance, in 2004, when Janet Jackson entertained during the half-time of Super Bowl XXXVIII, Facebook had yet to launch (it launched 3 days later), and very few SNS as we know them today existed (discussions, listservs, portals, forums, etc., did, but did not have the wide reach and immediate impact of today’s SNS). In the next few hours or days, the event permeated media on American television, radio, and newspapers, and most of the international public did not hear about it for at least a day or more. Today, however, events and conversation about events travel instantaneously. In 2012, for instance, US Presidential candidate Mitt Romney commented during a televised (and shared online) debate about “binders full of women”. While he was still discussing the topic, Twitter exploded with comments and a hashtag (#bindersfullofwomen) and less than a day later a Tumblr page was sharing memes about the topic ridiculing and critiquing Romney for his comment. Because of SNS, the immediacy of critiques and shaming occurs much more quickly without much time for processing or assessing the validity of claims or critiques. Not only does it occur more quickly, but because of the homogeneity of most users’ feeds, many social media users make an assumption that their audience is just like them and will consequently, laugh, joke, or ridicule just as they would. As Kane et al. writes

If people are limited to establishing similar formal connections with diverse sets of others including trusted confidants, casual acquaintances, and family members in their social networks, the platform homogenizes all these relational connections as being equivalent (e.g., friends, contacts).[8]

Indeed, technologies such as SNS environments often encourage homogenized thinking and have been created to increase levels of connectedness and belonging, the sort of space Eli Pariser[9] called a ‘filter bubble’. He argues, “news-filtering algorithms narrow what we know, surrounding us in information that tends to support what we already believe”[10]. However, this goes beyond algorithms and works within all social structures and—because of that—the most salient theory to address this concept of mediated society is habitus. Habitus addresses the level at which the ways we classify the world in social capital are generated by structural features of that same social world. While Pierre Bourdieu was not speaking to the interactions within media, nor social media at all, his explanations of the ways we interact because of the environmental structural features is an important way to discuss our communicative processes in social media, and to define the reasons shaming occurs so frequently in social media communications. As Bourdieu writes

…the point of view is a perspective, a partial subjective vision (subjectivist moment); but it is at the same time a view, a perspective, taken from a point, from a determinate position in an objective social space (objectivist moment).[11]

Thus, in social media, dis-emancipatory communication is subjected to the perspective that is already defined by the system and which, once disseminated, defines the space in which the communication takes place and how that communication is defined, and speaks to the ways that social media platforms naturally create space for the designation of ‘other’. Being part of an ‘out-group’—those who are different from the perceived norms—requires a sense of otherness, being other than ordinary. Foucault explains the term ‘othering’ as how social groups tend to define themselves through the cultural boundaries of inclusion and exclusion[12]. This does not mean that we have no free will over what we post, but that SNS platforms create space for the designation of ‘other’ because of the ways they encourage engagement. The ways people communicate in social media and how some of these communication practices lead to the marginalization of individuals and groups is because of the ways SNS encourage users to share and create for automatic feedback.

Marginalization, which comes from ‘othering’ and stigmas, which Goffman explains as an individual who does not measure up to the normative expectations and righteously presented demands set by society, is usually discussed with a political stance on inequalities[13]. It attempts to fractionalize the different groups to which an individual may belong and then deconstruct them. The process of fracturing and deconstructing focuses on descriptive traits of individuals and this focus can “obscure the deep-seated power relations that help to produce marginalized subjects”[14]. Therefore, when someone is ‘othered’ and described as wrong or outside what is allowed, power is shifted and the individual is then marginalized. Hindman continues to explain that these individuals within marginalized groups can also be silenced or have their identity overlooked[15].

Goffman also describes how a shameful gap forms between virtual and actual social identity (not to be confused with a gap between online and offline identity, but as a constructed versus actual social identity) for those individuals whose stigma is fully visible because the norms that define the ordinary are very obviously not met[16]. The continual interaction of virtual and actual social identities are like a play whose main character is always in flux, always changing, and not always fitting into the norm or the stigmatized. However, the recognition that we each have this ability to play the other side is not typical knowledge or awareness for the majority of individuals. If there is awareness, there also exists the unwillingness to accept that my identity could just as easily be shaped by or fit into other. Stigma management is a process that occurs wherever societal norms are set. This type of management of what is construed as ordinary and what is ‘other’ happens in SNS. The concepts of power that are held by the group that is presenting and shaping the ordinary have far-reaching markets. YouTubers have followers that allow them power to dictate and perpetuate what they choose to present as part of the ordinary ‘in’ group. Through this presentation of ordinary, a sense of belonging is created for the in-group that segregates the ‘other’. ‘Other’ becomes the out-group, the target, the bullied, or the shamed. The hand-in-hand character of ‘other’ and ordinary can be observed through their symbiotic existence.

Shaming in Popular Media

Shaming in media tends to occur in ways or places that make another—often the protagonist—character seem more likeable, sympathetic, or understandable. For instance, in “Of Mice and Men”, in both the literature and film versions, George is seen as the character who must endure the actions of Lennie, his companion, even as he looks out for him and advocates for him. He does this all while shaming him, calling him a “crazy bastard,” “poor bastard,” or “crazy fool”. Indeed, Steinbeck exacerbates this view of Lennie by labelling Lennie as wild at the same time he addresses Lennie as an innocent who has a whimpering cry[17].

Shaming occurs in all types of media, especially pop culture media. In a popular song from 2004, the word ‘retarded’ is used to indicate a simplistic view of the singer’s emotions:

Oh, therapy, can you please fill the void?

Am I retarded or am I just overjoyed? [18]

This use of language is indicative of the ways that shaming occurs not only of others, but of the self, indicated in the title of the album from which this song originates, American Idiot, inflating the concept of self-shaming and/or ridiculing within this piece. In fact, popular music is often used to ridicule, shame, marginalize, or stigmatize others, but to also call out that shaming. In 2012, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, in their song “Same Love”, sing

Call each other faggots behind the keys of a message board,
A word routed in hate, yet our genre still ignores it[19]

As the duo contend, language is often used in musical genres to promote hate and shaming without any regard to the actual influences of the concepts behind the words or of the words themselves.

The influence of words and conceptualization of the words is also explored in the film “Tropic Thunder”. Communicating the idea of when it is ok for an actor to “go full retard” is a segment performed by Robert Downey Jr.’s character (while his character is also in blackface, which is a double commentary on concepts of shaming in popular media). Downey’s character discusses the different performances of retarded, and what is or is not acceptable. Throughout this discussion the ‘other’ is defined at varying levels: full retard (Sean Penn’s portrayal in “I Am Sam”), slow and maybe retarded (Tom Hank’s in “Forrest Gump”), and appearing retarded, but not (Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man”). Dumb, moronic, and imbecilic are terms set up as boundaries between these levels within this movie. The resulting commentary is that one can “never go full retard” or will go home empty-handed (from the Oscars), resulting in being less than the norm. This language is so fleshed out and defined that it attempts to encompass an entire population of individuals.

While these may seem rather banal and help to create an ethos about the characters and/or artists, when combined with the onslaught of this type of communication and the proliferation of media such as ‘shock jocks’ and political pundits who use shaming as a means of communication, much of society begins to see shaming as something that is the norm. Increasingly, we not only see or hear about shaming in popular media, but also see it in the places we congregate online.

Dis-emancipatory Technologies

In the early years of online activities, much emphasis was placed on the democratization of online communications. The online world was thought to be a space in which the oppressed and marginalized would have an equal voice because of the ability to post without preconceived notions of who anyone was. However, as more users become engaged in online communications, the opposite has shown to be true and online communications have often been much more marginalizing than face-to-face situations. The data collected for this research supports this reasoning. The use of SNS environments has not only allowed users to post memes that would shame others, but to do so without insight or analysis of what they are posting and how it affects others. SNS have created a space for speed and reach of shaming that was limited prior to the development of the technologies. Analysis of the posts shows that there is little oversight or questioning of posts as they occur and, more often, an acquiescence by audiences’ uses of ‘like’, ‘favourite’, or other ways of acceptance. For instance, in a posting of a meme with an image of the “Mad Men” character Don Draper laughing with a drink in his hand; the overlaying text is “told girlfriend that mom is deaf so speak loud and slow / told mom that girlfriend is retarded”. No comments were made on the post, but six people, at the time of the capture, had ‘liked’ the post. The lack of critique or thoughtful engagement in the use of two disabilities (deafness and cognitive delay) is common throughout the use of shaming memes in SNS.

In addition, analysis of the data indicates that the status of the poster (anonymous or otherwise) does not have an impact on the dissemination of visual artefacts that use shaming language. For instance, SNS users on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, where names, whether official or nonofficial, are connected to accounts, materials using shaming language is posted to those sites just as often as those in anonymous apps like Secret, Whisper, and YikYak. The types of shaming did not change. For example, one Facebook user, known by one of the researchers, posted an image with the words “Apple goes full retard”, while on Whisper, one user posted an image with the words “Taco Bell, you are the most retarded restaurant even to exists [sic]”. The use of the word ‘retard’ in these two instances is used to shame the companies for their actions and/or presence, equating the companies to those with cognitive disabilities, a marginalized group.

Memes in online spaces, images with words that are shared widely in SNS, have contributed to the dis-emancipatory element of SNS technologies. Not only do they shame those they are directed at, but shame those they use to create an ‘other’ environment. Instead of having a more open and freeing environment, online spaces have become more restrictive in some ways because of the silencing of those who are marginalized and further silencing of those who are being equated with the already marginalized.

Digital Global Citizenship

While we have determined that the act of being anonymous versus non-anonymous does not affect the outcomes of  posts, the ways that social media users regard social media as private or public may have some influence on what is shared. For instance, one social media user was clearly thinking about her audience on Facebook when she posted “So, based on recent photos of myself, my best Halloween costume option is Jabba the Hutt”. Not only was there the expectation that her audience would sympathize, but that they would lend support to her plight, as she shamed herself and compared herself to a very large fantastical character from a movie. She did not post the same message on Twitter, where her tweets would be public (her Twitter account is public). What this means to the researchers is that she has a clear understanding of what is public and private, even as she engages in self-shaming practices.

However, ‘others’, who may not be familiar with understanding the differences between social media audiences and the thresholds of private and public discourse, may post information that would create barriers to discussion and/or disagreement. For instance, one user posted an image of the actor Sam Elliott with the following text: “Why the hell should I push one for English? When you’re just going to transfer me to someone that don’t know how to speak it… [sic]”. This user seems to have assumed that her audience would be amenable to this sentiment, that they would not notice the obvious grammatical issues in the text, and that they would naturally associate the dialectical shift with the characters, western cowboy-types, that Elliott often plays. In addition, the user has made a definitive statement about a marginalized demographic: those who do not speak English within the United States that would not have a voice in the post unless they were willing to out themselves as ‘others’. She may not even realize that her audience, especially in globally available venues like Facebook and Twitter, will have people from that marginalized group.

Because some online users may not be aware of the subtle shifts in audience, private/public discussions, and the ramifications of the speed and reach of SNS (global audiences who can view a posting within seconds of being posted), educators have a responsibility to address social media and the marginalization that occurs within it with a focus on digital global citizenship. Instructors must educate more conscientious citizens who promote positive interactions and eschew the negative effects of ‘othering’ and shaming. SNS plays a large part in students’ lives and instructors must be acutely aware of the lives their students live outside of the learning environment. A social justice approach to education suggests that instructors bring in issues their students are facing and address them directly. Freire argues that for the greatest impact on learning, individuals must be prepared to “perceive social, political, and economic contradictions, and to take action against the oppressive elements of reality”[20]. Teaching about digital global citizenship and learners’ roles within global communities will help them analyse situations in SNS more quickly and assess the appropriateness of posts and reposts. Rather than reposting, the lessons learned through a social justice or digital global citizenship lens will help students understand the ramifications of posts that are created to shame.

To address issues of othering, the learning environment must be created with a vision of citizenship that bolsters individual rights and makes apparent the responsibility of securing a common good[21] with a view to how students fit within a global community. The focus on social justice requires a renewed examination of the role technology plays in the learner’s life and her connection with others outside of her immediate locality. Because technology is not neutral, and is, in this case, more dis-emancipatory, it must be dissected to understand better why and how it is being used and who is affected by that use. Technology often fails to meet the standards of social justice due to lack of equity in participation, empowerment of individuals and groups, and the continuation of oppression and unequal treatment[22].

The inclusion of SNS in the learning environment (and beyond) has implications that must be addressed in the curriculum. Educators must work with students to determine the best practices for communicating and collaborating with others, especially when one understands the global nature of digital communications. Ribble[23] outlines nine themes of digital citizenship that should be taught within three overarching topics: Respect, Educate and Protect. The nine themes include digital access, digital commerce, digital communication, digital literacy, digital etiquette, digital Law, digital rights & responsibilities, digital health & wellness, and digital security. However, it is important to consider how these themes can be expanded to include the notion of global digital citizenship as an important curriculum that supports individuals in becoming more globally aware, having understandings of cultural differences when engaging and collaborating with others via digital communication tools. The chasm created by online communications can limit understandings of connectedness and requires that individuals know how these interactions have the same consequences (if not greater) as those in their immediate circles.


In order to create more emancipatory environments, there is a need to create spaces to understand how SNS users are taught to navigate complex social situations in social media platforms, how to engage with others, and how to promote positive reinforcement for others to interact in the global communities SNS provide. Working with learners, educators, developers, and thought leaders to work together to create more socially acceptable welcoming spaces will encourage connections with those outside of the composer’s localized community.

While the infrastructure of social media is naturally conducive to creating communities of like-minded interactions, composers in online spaces should determine how to navigate successfully the systems in order to develop positive interactions that neither shame nor ‘other’ those who are not a part of their immediate online communities. Communicating something that shames or has adverse effects on others is not restricted to an immediate audience in today’s hyper-connected world, but can live on long after the original posting in a global context. In order to not only understand the inherent problems with negative compositions, individuals need to understand what it means to be a part of a community in which they may not know everyone their communications will reach, how to navigate that successfully, and how to create positive spaces for anyone. The world is no longer a huge space in which people 5,000 miles away cannot hear your voice or see your actions. We should learn to be conscientious citizens promoting positive interactions and eschew negative effects of ‘othering’ and shaming.


Armstrong Billie Joe, “American Idiot,” american idiot. (Oakland, CA) (2004).

Bourdieu Pierre, “What makes a social class? On the theoretical and practical existence of Groups,” Berkeley Journal of Sociology 32 (1987).

Bourdieu Pierre, The Logic of Practice. (Stanford: Stanford University Press) (1990).

Buckingham David, Martínez-Rodríguez Juan Bautista, “Interactive youth: new citizenship between social networks and school settings,” Comunicar 20:40 (2013).

Dawkins Richard, The selfish gene 30th Anniversary Edition. (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (2006).

Foucault Michel, Madness and civilization: A history of insanity in the age of reason. (New York: Vintage Books) (1988).

Freire Paulo. Pedagogy of the oppressed. (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing) (2000).

Goffman Erving, Asylums: Essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates. (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books) (1968).

Goffman Erving, Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity. (New York: Simon and Schuster) (1963).

Haggerty Ben, Lewis Ryan, Lambert Mary, Same Love, The Heist. (Seattle, WA: Macklemore, LLC) (2012).

Hindman Matthew Dean, “Rethinking intersectionality: Towards an understanding of discursive marginalization,” New Political Science 33:2 (2011).

Hollandsworth Randy, Dowdy Lena, Donovan Judy, “Digital citizenship in K-12: It takes a village,” TechTrends 55:4 (2011).

Hytten Kathy, Bettez Silvia C., “Understanding education for social justice,” The Journal of Educational Foundations 25:1/2 (2011).

Jewitt Carey, Oyama Rumiko, “Visual meaning: A social semiotic approach,” in Handbook of visual analysis, ed. Theo Van Leeuwen and Carey Jewitt, (New York: Sage) (2001).

Johanson-Sebera Brandy, Wilkins Julia, “The Uses and Implications of the Term “Retarded” on YouTube,” Review of Disability Studies: An International Journal 6:4 (2014).

Kane Gerald C., Alavi Maryam, Labianca Giuseppe Joe, Borgatti Steve, “What’s different about social media networks? A framework and research agenda,” MIS Quarterly, (2012).

Margolis Eric, Rowe Jeremy, “Methodological Approaches to Disclosing Historic Photographs,” in The Sage handbook of visual research methods, ed. Eric Margolis and Jeremy Rowe, (Los Angeles: Sage) (2011).

Pariser Eli, The filter bubble: How the new personalized web is changing what we read and how we think. (New York: Penguin) (2011).

Pariser Eli, https://backchannel.com/facebook-published-a-big-new-study-on-the-filter-bubble-here-s-what-it-says-ef31a292da95#.efly7enlo, date accessed 4 July 2016.

Ribble Mike, “Nine Elements,”

http://www.digitalcitizenship.net/Nine_Elements.html, date accessed 15 February 2016.

Rose Gillian, Visual methodologies: An introduction to researching with visual materials. (Los Angeles: Sage) (2012).

Solon Olivia, “Richard Dawkins on the internet’s hijacking of the word ‘meme’”,

http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2013-06/20/richard-dawkins-memes, date accessed 28 July, 2016.

Steinbeck John, Of Mice and Men and The Moon Is Down, (New York: Penguin) (2010).


[1] Richard Dawkins, The selfish gene 30th Anniversary Edition. (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (2006), p. 199.

[2] Olivia Solon, “Richard Dawkins on the internet’s hijacking of the word ‘meme,’”

http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2013-06/20/richard-dawkins-memes, date accessed 28 July, 2016.

[3] Matthew Dean Hindman, “Rethinking intersectionality: Towards an understanding of discursive marginalization,” New Political Science 33:2 (2011); Brandy Johanson-Sebera, Julia Wilkins, “The Uses and Implications of the Term “Retarded” on YouTube,” Review of Disability Studies: An International Journal 6:4 (2014).

[4] Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity. (New York: Simon and Schuster) (1963); Foucault Michel, Madness and civilization: A history of insanity in the age of reason. (New York: Vintage Books) (1988).

[5] Carey Jewitt, Rumiko Oyama, “Visual meaning: A social semiotic approach,” in Handbook of visual analysis, ed. Theo Van Leeuwen and Carey Jewitt, (New York: Sage) (2001), p. 134.

[6] Eric Margolis, Jeremy Rowe, “Methodological Approaches to Disclosing Historic Photographs,” in The Sage handbook of visual research methods, ed. Eric Margolis and Jeremy Rowe, (Los Angeles: Sage) (2011), p. 348.

[7] Gillian Rose, Visual methodologies: An introduction to researching with visual materials. (Los Angeles: Sage) (2012), p. 81.

[8] Gerald C. Kane, Maryam Alavi, Giuseppe Joe Labianca, Steve Borgatti, “What’s different about social media networks? A framework and research agenda,” MIS Quarterly, (2012), p. 6.

[9] Eli Pariser, The filter bubble: How the new personalized web is changing what we read and how we think. (New York: Penguin) (2011).

[10] Eli Pariser, https://backchannel.com/facebook-published-a-big-new-study-on-the-filter-bubble-here-s-what-it-says-ef31a292da95#.w42q9k6dg, date accessed 4 July 2016.

[11] Bourdieu Pierre, “What makes a social class? On the theoretical and practical existence of Groups”, Berkeley Journal of Sociology 32 (1987), p. 13.

[12] Michel Foucault.

[13] Erving Goffman.

[14] Matthew Dean Hindman, “Rethinking intersectionality: Towards an understanding of discursive marginalization,” New Political Science 33:2 (2011), p. 191.

[15] Matthew Dean Hindman, p. 191.

[16] Erving Goffman.

[17] John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men, (New York: Penguin) (1994).

[18] Billie Joe Armstrong, “American Idiot,” american idiot. (Oakland, CA) (2004).

[19] Ben Haggerty, Ryan Lewis, Mary Lambert, Same Love, The Heist. (Seattle, WA: Macklemore, LLC) (2012).

[20] Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the oppressed. (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing) (2000), p. 35.

[21] Kathy Hytten, Silvia C. Bettez, “Understanding education for social justice,” The Journal of Educational Foundations 25:1/2 (2011).

[22] Kathy Hytten, Silvia C. Bettez, (2011).

[23] Mike Ribble, “Nine Elements,” http://www.digitalcitizenship.net/Nine_Elements.html, date accessed 15 February 2016.

Dr. Shadow W. J. Armfield is an Associate Professor of Educational Technology at Northern Arizona University.  His teaching includes technology integration in K-12 environments and graduate research for doctoral students. Dr. Armfield’s research interests include technology integration in K-12 environments, technology integration in teacher preparation programs, and online collaborative learning environments. Recent publication include a co-authored chapter in 2016 Springer International Publishing’s Building for a sustainable future in education: Brick by brick: Minding the gap: Valuing working class knowledge, and three chapters in the 2015 Media rich instruction. Current works include articles on technology integration in teaching methods courses and a case study on short term language and cultural immersion programs.

Dr. Dawn M. Armfield is an Assistant Professor of Technical Communication at Minnesota State University, Mankato, where she teaches Technical Communication, Usability, and Research and Theory in Technical Communication. Dr. Armfield’s research interests include digital composition, online collaborations, and educational technologies. Her most recent publications include a co-authored chapter in 2016 Springer International Publishing’s Building for a sustainable future in education: Brick by brick: Minding the gap: Valuing working class knowledge, and a chapter in the 2015 Media rich instruction. Current works include a monograph on remediation and a co-authored book on wearable technologies.

Dr. Laura O. Franklin is an Assistant Professor of Special Education at Wayne State College. Dr. Franklin teaches education courses including special education, learning strategies, bias/stereotype/prejudice in education, inclusive practices for educators, and consultation and collaboration.  Dr. Franklin’s academic interests include the culturally and linguistically diverse/exceptional; emotional disturbance and behavior disorders; disability studies; postmodern theories related to identity, processes of stigmatization and construction of labels; and qualitative research methodology. Dr. Franklin’s most recent publication is a co-authored chapter include in 2016 Springer International Publishing’s Social Justice Instruction.

Movement as language, signification as identity

Hannah Ebben

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 1, pp. 50-67

Hannah Ebben

Hallam University


Movement as language, signification as identity: Understanding and empowering the autistic community in online spaces



This article is a contribution to ongoing research in online autistic culture by defining its overarching themes and presenting a new theoretical framework that could advance and empower both autism research and the autistic community itself. It studies autism as a concept that is constantly linguistically (re)produced in society rather than as a mental disorder. Focussing on YouTube as a platform for autistic identity, it features a review of existing academic literature about the autistic community on the internet and analyses two YouTube videos made by autistic people. After an exploration of the focus on geography and the performance of citizenship in the literature, it will introduce the notion of the counter-metaphor as a facilitator of new concepts on human diversity besides ‘autism’ for researchers and the autistic community. Its significance will be explained through a presentation of ‘atopos’ as one such concept. The overall aim of this paper is to affirm the notion of online space as a producer and platform of new language and conversations on autism. It considers analytical tools for the academic study of the geography of autistic people, but also encourages empowering negotiations of online and offline space within the autistic community.

Key words: autistic identity, online cultures, empowering technology, disability geography, voice, counter-metaphor, atopos



 Autism is a flexible concept, shaped in and outside the clinical world. Within a medical context, it has been conceptualized and defined as a disorder characterized by impaired communication, social skills, and information processing. However, many stakeholders outside the clinical and scientific realm also attach words, signs, and metaphors to the concept. In this way, it becomes a dynamic interplay of meaning, subjective experiences and interpretations rather than a fixed, universal entity. For twenty years, there has been room for the previously unrecognized voices of autistic people, who had previously been seen as not being able to speak.[1] The arrival of the internet played a key role in the formation of the first autism self-advocacy organizations.[2] Autistic people now form and maintain online and offline communities and further shape and develop notions of divergence and diversity. For researchers, it is important to know how this new community negotiates identity and the word ‘autism’, and for autistic people, it is important to have a podium to develop further their own voices.

This article explores how to understand and further encourage the empowering potential of the internet, and YouTube in particular, for people who identify with the concept of autism. It considers literature on digital technology, autism, and empowerment, and presents terminology that affirms the free flow of enabling new ways to talk about human diversity. YouTube is a social networking site based on video sharing. Visitors may freely view uploaded videos, start a channel in order to upload videos, subscribe to other channels, comment on videos, and make playlists. Both companies and private citizens own YouTube channels, and both professional and homemade videos have become famous and widespread. Autistic people have posted and shared simulations of everyday sensory input, videos on social and political issues within the autism self-advocacy movements, and informal blogs about the notion of autism.

In order to understand the social and spatial conditions in which the flow of meaning on autism thrives, as well as the role of the internet in this process, it is important to acknowledge the close connection between technology and society. In their study of online Deaf culture, Valentine and Skelton refer to thinkers on the social science of technology like Bruno Latour and state, “society is produced in and through patterned networks of heterogeneous materials in which neither the properties of humans or non-humans are self-evident, rather they emerge in practice”.[3]On the basis of this statement, this paper will adopt the stance that technology, society and identity are not static entities, but are unconsciously shaped by everyday practices of signification, mutually complementing each other.

It will consider the internet as a digital space in which these practices evolve. A literary review on the autistic community online[4] will highlight the significance of spatiality. With the help of literature that addresses the construction of citizenship, I will study two YouTube videos made by people who identify with the concept of autism: the 2006 video “In My Language”, posted on the YouTube channel “silentmiaow” from non-verbal autistic self-advocate Amelia Baggs (formerly Amanda; blogs as ‘Ballastexistenz’); and the video “What it’s like to walk down the street when you have autism or an ASD” by “Craig Thomson”. With this reading, I eventually consider the question how the online autistic community could be further empowered in and outside academia. I will suggest the ‘counter-metaphor’ as an academic theoretical framework that could facilitate inclusive practices of signification online based on the empowering qualities of digital technology. This specific term stems from my research into metaphors on autism in cultural representations. These are the themes that emerge from the narrative structure and stylistic qualities of film, literature and video that can be formulated as ‘autism as…’. In relation to such metaphors as found in culture, counter-metaphors are interventions made by people who consider these metaphors, in my case the researcher or eventually autistic people themselves. Inventing a counter-metaphor aims to enable a broader vocabulary and a free flow of signification to come into being in a way that further empowers autistic people. It aims to not only recognize but also support the way in which autistic people find their voice and how YouTube offers its platform online. A larger framework of counter-metaphors in and outside academia might eventually facilitate new sustainable structures of signification on human diversity. Digital media have been a platform for the creation of  words and meaning to everyday experiences. YouTube is one of the social networking sites that can be explored to study how this creativity comes to the fore and the way it could be further acknowledged and encouraged.

The study and encouragement of empowering technologies exemplifies a Cultural Studies approach[5] that stands for an open, interdisciplinary, and worldly engagement with multilateral themes addressing culture, meaning, and ideology.[6] It not only studies cultural artefacts, but is more precisely focused on their “use” in everyday life in a given political context.[7] This use indicates the way in which a political system is embedded in cultural objects that are produced and consumed daily and are usually left unnoticed. To research this, Cultural Studies scholars seek the social margins in order to strive for “demarginalization”, and regard for social diversity. Research that has been done in the field of Cultural Studies has had a very broad scope and is difficult to capture in one single methodological template. Nevertheless, it is important to consider its approach as it helps us to understand how to foster the process of demarginalization effectively.[8] The Cultural Studies approach in this particular inquiry strives to acknowledge the empowering qualities of YouTube for the autistic community as a group that has struggled to let their voices be heard. The field has borrowed its method of data collection from Media Studies, amongst other fields, but focuses more on the social contexts in which mediated artefacts has arisen.[9] In order to grasp the empowering quality of YouTube for autistic persons comprehensively, I will address its interface and the style and content of its videos. Studying the use of video in society, my reading includes larger themes such as the construction of autistic identity and citizenship through a negotiation with the non-autistic ‘norm’ within the boundaries of the YouTube interface.

After a short description of autistic voices online and the research that has covered it, I will present a reading of the two videos. I will then introduce the counter-metaphor through an explanation of the atopos concept that I have employed in my own research. I will argue that other researchers and autistic people could also invent such terms as empowering tools. In keeping with most autistic people’s wishes, this article employs identity-first language. This means that I will speak about “autistic people” in order to refer to people who identify with the concept of autism.[10] Note that this includes personal accounts on YouTube regardless of diagnoses. To maintain the integrity of the research, this article does not decide if the persons portrayed ‘actually’ have autism and only addresses discourse, although future analyses will cover online negative responses to Baggs’ work and claims.

 Online and offline autistic community

Notions of affirmation and emancipation are often approached in terms of the voice: being able to speak, being enabled to speak, and being heard are necessary conditions for the production and recognition of knowledge.[11] For a long time, ‘autism’ was seen as a negation of a speaking self, as autistic people were not believed to be able to be introspective and retrospective because of their lack of understanding of the human mind.[12] This has been problematized by the emergence of autism self-advocacy, in which autistic people make themselves known as  “actors with agency”[13] because of a shared story of living with autism, which renders it political.[14] Arising in the early 1990s, autism self-advocacy has been greatly shaped out of an oppositional stance towards the stakeholders that traditionally had delimited what could be said and what could not be said about the concept of autism, like parents, charity funds, and therapists.[15] The first recognized autistic people with a voice of their own still operated in the proximity of clinicians and parent groups. By contrast, the internet brought autistic people together as equal peers, which is a great factor of its empowering quality. Mailing lists formed its first online communication. A notable example is Independent Living on the Autistic Spectrum, which offered emotional support and a platform for activism. Due to their dissatisfaction with the emphasis on cures amongst parents, in 1992 Donna Williams and Jim Sinclair founded ANI, the first autism self-advocacy organization.[16] Today, autistic voices are visibly recognized online; for example, autistic vlogger Amythest Schaber offers accessible resources on autism presented by an insider.[17]

Literature of the formation of autistic voices and identity often employ as a method of choice an ethnographic study[18] or an analysis of questionnaires and autobiographical accounts[19]. These texts highlight the conscious and challenging choices of autistic people to disclose[20]and construct[21]an autistic identity against a backdrop of the increasingly non-hierarchical practice of signifying autism as explained above and the shift in focus from autism as a condition in need of a cure to a potential community.[22]The identity management of autistic people is influenced by the need to undermine stigma and stay safe[23]and is characterized by a dynamic process of negotiating a polyphony of voices from in and outside the autistic community.[24]

Writings that specify autistic culture online critically approach the potential empowering effects of digital technology[25]and remarkably often focus on geography, that is, the way in which online and offline communication are negotiated as different spaces.[26] The internet is significant for the autistic community and the research that studies it; literature addresses its status as a technology that could compensate autism-related communicative impairments. Jordan comments that online communication often lacks elements of face-to-face communication with which autistic people struggle.[27] In their study of questionnaires completed by autistic people, Davidson and Orsini quote one anonymous participant who states that the internet only offers “one dimension”: a text that can be read and written at any occasion, which fits their communicative style much better.[28] Others confirm that their social lives have been enriched by the accessibility of the internet.[29] The importance and innovation of the communicative possibilities that a website interface offers to autistic people is well known in the academic world: several articles refer to the belief that the internet might have the same significance for autistic people as sign language for Deaf people.[30] In addition, just like the Deaf community emerged out of a shared language and a shared space[31], the communicative accessibility of the internet brought autistic people an increased proximity to their peers, regardless of bodily distance.[32] In the case of Deaf culture, the internet offered more information and people to communicate with via text and sign language than did offline Deaf clubs. This meant that it formed a technology that, unlike cochlear implants, was not aimed at the normalization of Deaf people.[33] Similar to this, ANI-L, one of the first virtual spaces for autistic people, encouraged the affirmation of autistic identities rather than the search for a cure.[34] It therefore offered a space that was low in stimuli for people with communicative and sensory problems and did not pressure normalization. The close proximity amongst new people enables the formation of new communities, and in relation to empowering technology, the internet facilitates these communities and their unique communication.[35] Space is created through these shared activities.[36]

The geography of the autistic community is thus heterogeneously localized in online and offline space and the exact relation between the two has been explored in literature. Rosqvist et al base their article on two research projects on specific online and offline communities (respectively a forum and a magazine with an accompanying summer camp) andconsider both as enabling spaces for autistic people to enter.[37] Their geographical study of the autistic community distinguishes “neuro-separate spaces” from “neuro-shared spaces”.[38]In neuro-separated spaces, mainstream culture follows a non-autistic norm in which autistic people are either excluded or creating their own “safe spaces” of resistance.[39] Neuro-shared spaces attempt to accommodate anyone and are created when places are made accessible for disabled people. Through its empowering potential, the internet might be a leg up to a stronger offline position and thus a shared space with the majority culture.[40] In the online and offline alternative spaces studied, autistic people found a chance to find peers and benefited from the removal of the ‘problems’ of non-autistic society as their quality of life increased.[41] However, divergent interest amongst the visitors often clashed: socializing predominated political ambitions or vice versa, and disagreements arose regarding the possibilities of contact with non-autistic society.[42] The online forum studied especially displayed reluctance to transfer to non-autistic space.[43] Rosqvist et al state that the magazine project needed significantly more negotiation with non-autistic culture and was therefore more of a neuro-shared space aimed at wider inclusion than the forum. This made the latter more separatist and led to various discussions on identity that were less preoccupied with ‘fitting in’.[44]This research is interesting here because it considers the clustering of autistic voices into technologies and spaces that all facilitate a different type of identity construction with regard to mainstream culture.

Rosqvist et al mention concerns about a “ghettoization” of online autistic culture as an overly separated practice of signification and communication.[45] Jordan laments the potential ‘splintering’ of the autistic community caused by autistic self-advocates online who form a polar opposite to other interest groups. Such chasms could hamper the autism movement.[46] By contrast, Davidson and Orsini also address the fear of a diminished visibility of disability caused by online autistic culture and offer a nuanced study that carefully weighs up visions of the internet as a panacea versus the internet as separation for the autistic community.[47] In their analysis of questionnaires returned by autistic people, they study what their personal experiences of the internet can reveal about identity and negotiations of space. They argue on the basis of this study that “online activities are rarely entirely insular” and that the effects of these activities reach beyond autism, autistic persons, and skills that are solely useful on the internet.[48] This could indicate blurring boundaries between the online and offline world.[49] Some autistic research participants pointed out their overly long periods of time spent online, and some stated their preference for virtual and digital communication. Nevertheless, many indicated that their social lives and skills were improved outside the internet through online communication, with more overall empowerment and connection.[50] Social exclusion was decreased online as the autistic participants did not have to be confined to the space of their homes anymore with access to the internet.[51] They easily adapted to quickly changing technologies, such as mobile internet access that extends beyond the home.[52] Overall, many autistic people are shown to construct online spaces dynamically that are inclusive to their peers; they both confine a separate safe space online and improve their negotiations of space beyond those confinements and into the offline world.

 Performing autistic voices on YouTube

 The notions of autistic voices and geographies online and offline form the cause of the exploration of the imagery and geography of YouTube. The concept of autism (as well as Deaf culture) is being (re)defined and circulated online by heterogeneous peer groups in ways that do not necessarily reflect clinical understandings of pathological difference. The interfaces of digital technologies both facilitate communication amongst autistic people and shape the content of this communication. For example, autism forums only offer written dialogues and take away the additional challenging communicative and sensory input of face-to-face conversations.[53] At the same time, they might form spaces that are separated from mainstream culture, as the interface of a forum that is solely visited by autistic people does not require any negotiation with non-autistic voices and communication. This may result in discussions that regard mainstream culture as ‘alien’.[54] The performative nature of autistic identity—the notion that people ‘do’ identity through constant culturally specific practice—is key here and is closely related to space and technology. My own analysis presupposes the notion that the word ‘autism’ does not necessarily reflect a pre-linguistic, material reality that is based in the bodies of diagnosed people, but that it is actively being filled with meaning through all kinds of signifying practices. Using the word ‘autism’ brings a specific reality into being, just as if the declaration ‘I hereby apologize’ actualizes apologies. In the case of YouTube, a specific video is such a performative utterance in itself.[55] It is important to note that performative expressions evolve unconsciously.

YouTube facilitates specific performative practices of signifying autism through its specific user interface. It is a platform for videos that are accessible through personalized channels, open to comments, and can be made easily using cameras and editing software. Even though the comment section uses written text and can be complemented by autistic people at their own convenience, making a video itself offers creative potential with more “elements” than text only.[56] Meaning can be constructed consciously or unconsciously through editing, camera work, intertitles, monologues in front of the camera, or annotations. Overall, YouTube is a digital space in which individual practices of producing and uploading content forms the “main vehicle of communication and of social connection” and most users use the site to watch and comment on this content.[57] The analysis of the two case studies, from now on referred to as “What it’s like…” and “In My Language”, will address all of these elements.

My approach to these case studies is informed by several texts. The field of Cultural Studies fits into the aim of exploring signifying practices of autism in and outside videos distributed by YouTube and to the role of the specific YouTube interface. The empirical study of two YouTube videos are considered as cultural ‘texts’[58]; annotations, tags, and the video description from the poster as paratexts in which the video is presented to the audience[59] and comments from others as instances of reception of the video content. This highlights the use of cultural content in online practice[60] and thus opens up an approach that analyses the actions of autistic people on YouTube as an assemblage of video content and debates in textual commentary.

Additionally, the production of autistic identity and space on YouTube will be considered with the help of the literary review and the insights of van Zoonen et al’s 2010 article on the performance of citizenship on YouTube. In their exploration of citizenship in a multicultural society, van Zoonen et al read YouTube videos that react to the release of the Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders’ anti-Islam film Fitna.[61] Their research questions regarding the study of citizenship, that is, how the videos claim their right to speak and who is the implied addressee[62], are closely aligned with my own consideration of autistic voices as constructed practices. They problematize common theorizations of voices in academia in relation to YouTube, as the rear end of the communicative process is often ambiguous in videos. People or groups addressed in a video do not have to be part of its actual audience, and many videos that declare a message do not explicitly address someone at all.[63] Van Zoonen et al subvert the assumption that voices need a clear addressee with the help of a “performative” concept of voice: expressions that are significant in and of itself for themselves, no matter who is addressed and who listens. Within this view, one becomes a citizen by ‘doing’ citizenship.[64] The appealing factor of this definition for this study is the fact that it directs the study of voice to the “deed” of citizenship, that is, YouTube videos and comments, and its participants.[65] My readings of autistic identity and citizenship in “What it’s like…” and “In My Language” will also set the content of stylistic choices of the deed at the forefront, rather than the intention of the creators. The act of posting content itself already constitutes citizenship. The following analysis will also be based on assumed audiences and the occurrence of autistic voices and community.

Both “What it’s like…” and “In My Language” are divided into two segments: one that appeals to a normalized gaze to the world and to disabled people, and another that subverts this gaze and establishes autistic difference and voice. However, the two videos convey a very different message. Whereas “What it’s like… is a more traditionally educative video that simulates a walk through the eyes of an archetypical autistic person, “In My Language” offers a translation to non-verbal communication as a breakdown of social expectations of autistic people. The assumed addressee in the videos is key here. “What it’s like…” features a ‘demonstration’ of autism as a difference in everyday sensory input. A fragment that displays a walk down a street from the point of view of a non-autistic “neurotypical” person is followed by a fragment of the same path that is now perceived by an autistic person. Both are introduced by intertitles that disclose the identity ‘archetype’ shown. The “neurotypical” walk is filmed with a steady camera; however, the “autistic” walk features increased brightness and city noise (added in postproduction), jerky camera movements, and superposed textual commentary. This commentary uses clinical language as the intensified stimuli is referred to as “sensory overload” that can cause a “flight or fight response”. The video description says more about its assumed audience: “It will hopefully give neurotypicals a rough idea about what it’s like to life (sic) with autism”. This gives the impression that the video is intended to educate non-autistic people about autistic sensory experience, about which he states that it “does vary from person to person”.[66] Nevertheless, many comments come from people who disclose their identification with the concept of autism and state to which extent the content mirrors their own personal experiences. YouTube user “Arman Kody” posted such a reply in the form of a new video.[67] Even though the establishment of autistic sensory overload in “What it’s like…” is mostly unilateral, its comment section does form a platform for autistic people to talk about their personal life. The video thus ‘performs’ autism as it is established through a contrast between two fragments that show clear differences in stylistic choices. The shadow of the camera operator proves that ‘normalcy’ and ‘deviancy’ had to be staged in order to be portrayed on film. Its educative nature negotiates non-autistic society by assuming an audience that is oblivious to the peculiarity of autistic perceptions. The video could thus be seen as ‘neuro-shared’.

By contrast, “In My Language” does not reveal differences but offers its assumed audience a mirror to its prejudice. At first, Baggs moves and makes sounds in a domestic space, but after the intertitle “A translation” appears, Baggs says with a computer voice that the movements were her “native language”. Establishing her language, she incites the assumed audience to look at her movements and sensory contact as meaningful in and of itself, as non-verbal disabled people are often seen as unable to communicate and relate to the world. While “Craig Thomson” directed his video to “neurotypicals”, Baggs’ implied audience is much more subtly interwoven into her message. In her translated spoken message, she refers to “many people” and often speaks in the passive when talking about false preconceptions on disabled people. This makes clear that her assumed audience covers society generally: not necessarily individual stances towards disability and voice, but discriminatory social practices. Because of this, “In My Language” is a statement that consciously deconstructs common assumptions from mainstream culture and presents movement as another language. Its comment section mostly contains reactions to this particular statement without much identity disclosure. Overall, Baggs’ space in and surrounding her video is more ‘neuro-separated’ since societal prejudice is contrasted with “people like me”, even though she addresses a wider audience.[68] The rhetoric of the translation clearly establishes an alternative autistic voice that is filled with significance, more so than “What it’s like…”. The assumed audience of “What it’s like…” has a lack of knowledge on autism, whereas “In My Language” refers to an assumed audience that is filled with prejudice.

“Craig Thomson” and Baggs unite both autistic and non-autistic internet users by their posts. However, the very fact that they use YouTube as a platform to creatively present autism, perception, and voice already means that they are part of a wider online autistic community. They actively shape and contribute to the online flow of new signs on the autistic condition through web pages. This already signifies a particular geography based on a creative structure of signification. It is exactly this geography that I hope to grasp better through further study and encouragement of new words on the concept of autism in the autistic community. In the next section, I will leave behind my position as a passive observer of an online community and will focus on my own textual inventions that helped me to understand representations of autism better. The nature of this invention, a counter-metaphor, could be transferred to performative citizenship itself in order to make an unconscious production of meaning conscious.

 The counter-metaphor

 We saw that the production of the autistic community revolves around an unconscious process of identity performance and this occurs on YouTube by sharing creative units. I would like to argue that YouTube is a fitting platform for me to develop further the notion of the counter-metaphor as a conscious intervention in the practice of signifying autism. A counter-metaphor is a discursive invention that is specifically intended to be a break with common normalized conceptualizations of autism. In and outside the clinical world, the process of meaning-making is so obscured that speech on autism is seen as a pre-discursive ‘truth’. Conversely, the counter-metaphor allows free signification outside the dominant pathology of the concept of autism. It thus broadens talk about human diversity, rather than replaces ‘autism’ when traditional words fail to bring everyday autistic experience affirmatively into words. New words that refer to this experience could also connote the lives of other minority groups, which could lead to new alliances outside the autistic community. In order to show how this signification process of the counter-metaphor works, I will now turn to my own academic practice: the invention of ‘atopos’ in my MA thesis.

My MA thesis focused on the representation of autism as a discourse and negotiations of space in literary and visual culture. I found that the word ‘autism’ failed to grasp adequately the way in which autistic characters and autistic people in personal accounts transgress the space that surrounds them. The word ‘autism’ has always been associated with a preoccupation with the self: it was first formulated by psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler in 1910 and stems from the Old Greek word ‘autos’, meaning ‘self’.[69] Ever since, imagery of autistic people locked in their own world has been dominant.[70] By contrast, my case studies, including the two YouTube videos discussed in this essay, showed autistic people who are preoccupied with space: they intensively transgress space and stimuli and are often absorbed by it in case of sensory overload. To enable myself to freely consider my case studies and their undermining subversion of the word ‘autism’, I decided to invent something new with the intention to empower my own analysis and the practice of signification by autistic people. I thus developed theory out of my data. I countered existing spatial metaphors of autism: a lot of language on autistic people is concerned with withdrawal from space (autism as a shell) or origins from another space (autism as alien).[71] A counter-metaphor concerned with space does not reject such metaphors but makes something new out of it.

The concept of atopos does prioritize space and is a “virtual, hypothetical parallel to the actual etymology of ‘autism’”.[72] It is also an Old Greek word that means ‘strange’ in the sense of being ‘out of place’ (a-topos: no space). In the same vein as Bleuler’s adaptation of an Old Greek word in his ‘autism’, ‘atopos’ forms the basis of words like ‘atopy’ in immunology, which refers to hypersensitivity to allergens[73] and ‘atopia’ in geography, which refers to a borderless world.[74] All of these terms touch upon lived experiences as told by many autistic people themselves. The sensation of sensory overload is a hypersensitivity to stimuli that can give a feeling of absorption by space and a loss of boundaries between space and the body. Atopos thus shakes off inherent ‘autism’ connotations and allows a whole new vocabulary of lived experience to come into being.

This vocabulary greatly informed my readings of “What it’s like…” and “In My Language”. It enriched my understanding of the representation of “sensory overload” in “What it’s like…” as I could analyze its jerky camera work as an atopic transgression of the autism archetype’s corporeal boundaries characterized by probing sounds and light. In the case of “In My Language”, the atopos term mirrors Baggs’ message. Her ‘translated voice’ states that it is ironic that her movements and touch are seen as indicative of a life in her own world; her conscious contact with space through movement already forms a language in itself. Whereas I rejected ‘autos’ and the idea of autistic people being in their own world to improve my analyses, Baggs retrieves her own voice in the world instead of a world because she transgresses and absorbs space with agency. ‘Atopos’ evolves into something new: into a language. Baggs’ term ‘translation’ might inspire new words and videos from autistic people who may build it into a completely new concept that breaks with rooted assumptions on autism and voice—a new counter-metaphor.

This is why I intended the notion of the counter-metaphor to be something that anyone could invent in order to broaden common language on human diversity and lived experience. My atopos counter-metaphor does not always help to understand a text from an autistic person better; in these cases, new concepts could be theorized in order to broaden language on human diversity beyond the predominant ‘autism’. In research on the empowering potential of YouTube for the autistic community, ‘atopos’ is mostly usable for an analysis of video content itself, but not necessarily for the study of the unique geography that the online autistic community generates. Even though autistic people worldwide can meet each other online in a world without borders, atopia, it cannot fully address the full complexity of the autistic community. Based on my literary review on online autistic space, I would like to state that Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopia—as presented in his essay “Different Spaces”,—might be more useful here. Foucault uses the term to name the contemporary presentation of space as various “relations of emplacements”[75], which means that different heterogeneous elements form a space through specific relations.[76] In the literature I discussed, the autistic community on the internet was addressed as an intricate web of relations between non-autistic people and autistic people, being shared and separated, online and offline. As I lack the space to elaborate this, it might be useful to adopt heterotopia as a new theoretical framework for autistic online geography. The notion of ‘relation of emplacements’ may also be useful for members of the autistic community itself if it helps to articulate their negotiation of the difference between online safe spaces and offline spaces in which non-autistic culture predominates. They might create new words out of this or another concept in a signifying process that is similar to my own creation of atopos as a researcher. The counter-metaphor process thus aims to facilitate new enabling words that together might form a new structure of signification on human diversity. As the invention of words stands for creativity, it may as well be a conscious construction of citizenship itself.

The counter-metaphor as a facilitator of a new structure of signification within the autistic community on YouTube confirms and builds on cultural anthropologist Ben Belek’s findings of his 2013 ethnography of a community of vloggers who identify with the label of Asperger’s Syndrome on YouTube. He concludes that the vloggers and the autistic people who comment do form a community, but states that it is not enough to say that they solely share a diagnosis.[77] He instead describes them as a “discourse community”, which is a community that is bound through a shared form of communication that is specific to the history of the group.[78] A discourse community is confined to its own words, but there is room for change as the linguistic possibilities of the community can be extended by choice.[79] Belek argues that the autistic vloggers contribute to a large stockpile of texts that shape and direct their discourse, often in ways that touch upon the most basal understandings of the ontology of autism.[80] He points out the constant intake of new terms, theories, and metaphors that the vloggers deliver.[81] Based on these findings, he presents the autistic community on YouTube as a collective that could unite and develop a voice within the historical circumstances of the arrival of the internet.[82] It could create an identity through the active social construction of the notion of autism by transforming its meaning.[83] The YouTube community studied thus reconstituted the very category of Asperger’s Syndrome as a positive identity through a creative employment of autism as a discourse.[84] A conscious process of signification intended to be an act of identity formation counters the unconscious performativity of the concept of autism in society. As I stated in my MA thesis, “The insight of the autism community as a discourse community teaches that its members belong to each other by negotiating the discourse of autism”.[85] This essay has presented a similar theorization of the autistic community on YouTube with its discussion of two case studies. It has created an additional concept that might form an enabling discursive tool for new terms and words to arise.


 After the presentation of the ‘counter-metaphor’, it is wise to indicate the role of the researcher in its potential next steps. This article has laid the empowering potential of digital technology in language in and of itself. It reassures that it is okay to accept that the concept of autism is cultural and flexible. On the internet, it is a field for creativity and identity forming, and in the end this signifying process could eventually positively affect the geography of the autistic community. This does not pretend to neutralize the difference between offline and online space or to make each problematic element of autistic space obsolete. The internet offers many autistic people the advantages of a social space that is low in stimuli, bridges peers that are often from all over the world, and forms a platform for creative content. Within these circumstances, the geography of the autistic community could go in any direction. Even though concerns about ghettoization are understandable, in order to support the demarginalization of autistic people in research, it is important to try to understand discourses on autism. The interpretation of ‘autism’ and ‘identity’ is up to people identifying with autism themselves. In order to study the autistic community, allowing the free production of words and terms is key. This might ultimately lead to concepts that enable alliances with groups, spaces, or fields that now lie outside of the notion of autism, such as other marginalized groups with similar lived experiences.

This article has engaged with demarginalization through its combination of empirical research that induces its conclusions on the basis of observations of YouTube as a digital social network, and action research that aims to change the world it observes. Specifically, the counter-metaphor has both academic and inclusive implications as it interprets existing practices of meaning-making and encourages new words and concepts. I hope that my literary review and presentation of the notion of the counter-metaphor will inspire subsequent studies on the empowerment of autistic people. Considering technology as a bottom-up participative spread of information could be a starting point for rethinking ‘autism’ and facilitating the negotiation of meaning and identity, theorized here as the formulation of counter-metaphors.



Austin John L., How to do Things with Words. The William James Lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1955,(Oxford: Clarendon Press) (1962).

Bagatell Nancy, “Orchestrating voices: autism, identity and the power of discourse”, Disability & Society22:4 (2007).

Bagatell Nancy, “From Cure to Community: Transforming Notions of Autism”, Ethos. Journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology 38:1 (2010).

Belek Ben, “I Believe It Can Change the Way Things Are”. Identity Constructions Among Video-Bloggers with Asperger’s Syndrome on Youtube, (Diemen: AMB) (2013).

Bleuler Eugen,Demenia Praecox oderGruppe der Schizophrenien, (Leipzig: Franz Deuticke) (1910).

Broderick Alicia. A., Ari Ne’eman, “Autism as metaphor: narrative and counter-narrative”, in International Journal of Inclusive Education 12:5-6 (2008).

Burgess Jean& Joshua Green, “Agency and Controversy in the YouTube Community”, in Internet Research 9.0: Rethinking Community, Rethinking Place, Copenhagen(15-18 October 2008).

Coca Arthur. F. & Robert A. Cooke, “On the classification of the phenomena of hypersensitiveness”, Journal of Immunology 8 (1923).

Couldry Nick, Why Voice Matters: Culture and Politics After Neoliberalism,(London: Sage) (2010).

Davidson Joyce, “‘In a World of her Own…’: Re-presenting alienation and emotion in the lives and writings of women with autism”, Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography 14:6 (2007).

Davidson Joyce, “Autistic culture online: virtual communication and cultural expression on the spectrum”, Social & Cultural Geography 9:7 (2008).

Davidson Joyce & Victoria L. Henderson, “‘Coming out’ on the spectrum: autism, identity and disclosure”, Social & Cultural Geography 11:2(2010).

Davidson Joyce & Michael Orsini, “The Shifting Horizons of Autism Online”, in Worlds of Autism. Across the Spectrum of Neurological Difference, ed.idem, (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press) (2013).

Dekker Martijn, “On Our Own Terms: Emerging autistic culture” Presented at Autscape (1999).

Ebben Hannah, “In constant encounter with one’s environment: Presenting counter-metaphors in the study of the discourse of autism and negotiations of space in literature and visual culture”, MA thesis supervised by László Munteán and Mitzi Waltz (2015).

Foucault Michel,“Different Spaces”, in Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology, ed. James Faubion, (London: Penguin Books)(1984 [1976]). Volume 2 of the Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984 series edited by Paul Rabinow (1998).

Genette Gérard, “Introduction to the Paratext”, New Literary History 22:2, “Probings: Art, Criticism, Genre”, Translated by M. Maclean (1991).

Jordan Chloë J., “Evolution of Autism Support and Understanding Via the World Wide Web”, Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities 48:3 (2010).

Rosqvist Hanna B., Charlotte Brownlow & Lindsay O’Dell “Mapping the social geographies of autism – online and off-line narratives of neuro-shared and separate spaces”, Disability & Society28:3 (2013).

Sacks Oliver, An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales,(New York: Alfred A. Knopf) (1995).

Titchkosky Tanya, “Disability: A Rose by Any Other Name? “People-First” Language in Canadian Society”, Canadian Review of Sociology 38:2 (2001).

Valentine Gill& Tracey Skelton, “Changing spaces: the role of the internet in shaping Deaf geographies”, Social & Cultural Geography 9:5 (2008).

Waltz Mitzi, “Reading case studies of people with autistic spectrum disorders: a cultural studies approach to issues of disability representation”, Disability & Society 20:4 (2005).

Waltz Mitzi, Autism. A Social and Medical History,(Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan) (2013).

Willke Helmut, Atopia. Studiemzuratopischen Gesellschaft,(Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp) (2001).

White Mimi and James Schwoch, “Introduction: The Questions of Method in Cultural Studies”, in Questions of Method in Cultural Studies, ed. idem, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing) (2006).

Zoonen Liesbetvan, Farida Vis and Sabina Mihelj, “Performing citizenship on YouTube: activism, satire and online debate around the anti-Islam video Fitna”,Critical Discourse Studies7:4(2010).

 Video material

 Arman Kody, “Re What it’s like to walk down a street when you have autism or an ASD”, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Rj-s2gW3x4 (2011), date accessed 14 April 2016.

Craig Thomson, “What it’s like to walk down a street when you have autism or an ASD”, YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=plPNhooUUuc (2010), date accessed 18 May 2015.

Amythest Schaber, “Ask an Autistic – What is Autism?”, YouTube,https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vju1EbVVgP8, (2015), date accessed 11 April 2016.

silentmiaow, “In My Language”, YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnylM1hI2jc (2006), date accessed18 May 2015.



[1] Oliver Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales,(New York: Alfred A. Knopf) (1995).

[2]Martijn Dekker, “On Our Own Terms: Emerging autistic culture”, Presented at Autscape (1999).

[3]Gill Valentine, Tracey Skelton, “Changing spaces: the role of the internet in shaping Deaf geographies”, Social & Cultural Geography 9:5 (2008), p. 471.

[4]Martijn Dekker.

[5]Mitzi Waltz, “Reading case studies of people with autistic spectrum disorders: a cultural studies approach to issues of disability representation”, Disability & Society 20:4 (2005).

[6]Mimi White, James Schwoch, “Introduction: The Questions of Method in Cultural Studies”, in Questions of Method in Cultural Studies, ed. idem, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing) (2006), pp. 1-3.

[7] Mimi White, James Schwoch, p. 5.

[8] Mimi White, James Schwoch, p. 14.

[9] Mimi White, James Schwoch, p. 15.

[10] Alicia Broderick, Ari Ne’eman, “Autism as metaphor: narrative and counter-narrative”, International Journal of Inclusive Education 12:5-6 (2008).

[11] Nick Couldry, Why Voice Matters: Culture and Politics After Neoliberalism, (London: Sage) (2010).

[12]Oliver Sacks.

[13] Mitzi Waltz, Autism. A Social and Medical History, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan) (2013), p. 133.

[14]Titchkosky Tanya, “Disability: A Rose by Any Other Name? ‘People-First’ Language in Canadian Society”, Canadian Review of Sociology 38:2 (2001), p. 136.

[15]Mitzi Waltz, (2013), pp. 134-143.

[16]Martijn Dekker.

[17]Amythest Schaber, “Ask an Autistic – What is Autism?”, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vju1EbVVgP8, (2015), date accessed 11 April 2016.

[18] Nancy Bagatell, “Orchestrating voices: autism, identity and the power of discourse”, Disability & Society 22:4 (2007), pp. 413-426.

[19]Joyce Davidson, Michael Orsini, “The Shifting Horizons of Autism Online”, in Worlds of Autism. Across the Spectrum of Neurological Difference, ed. idem, (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press) (2013), pp. 285-304.

[20]Joyce Davidson, Victoria Henderson, “‘Coming out’ on the spectrum: autism, identity and disclosure”, Social & Cultural Geography (2010), 11:2.

[21]Nancy Bagatell, (2007), pp. 413-414.

[22] Nancy Bagatell, “From Cure to Community: Transforming Notions of Autism”, Ethos. Journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology (2010), 38:1.

[23] Joyce Davidson, Victoria Henderson, p. 159.

[24]Nancy Bagatell, (2007), pp. 422-425.

[25] Joyce Davidson, “Autistic culture online: virtual communication and cultural expression on the spectrum”, Social & Cultural Geography(2008), 9:7.

[26]Hanna Rosqvist et al, “Mapping the social geographies of autism – online and off-line narratives of neuro-shared and separate spaces”, Disability & Society(2013), 28:3.

[27]Chloë Jordan, “Evolution of Autism Support and Understanding Via the World Wide Web”, Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities 48:3 (2010), p. 220.

[28]Joyce Davidson, Michael Orsini, p. 293.

[29]Joyce Davidson, Michael Orsini, p. 294.

[30]Joyce Davidson, (2008), p. 792.

[31]Gill Valentine, Tracey Skelton, p. 472.

[32]Martijn Dekker.

[33]Gill Valentine, Tracey Skelton, pp. 472-474.

[34]Martijn Dekker.

[35]Gill Valentine, Tracey Skelton, pp. 476.

[36] Hanna Rosqvist et al, p. 368.

[37] Hanna Rosqvist et al, pp. 367-368.

[38] Hanna Rosqvist et al, pp. 368-369.

[39] Hanna Rosqvist et al, pp. 369-370.

[40] Hanna Rosqvist et al, p. 370.

[41] Hanna Rosqvist et al, p. 373.

[42] Hanna Rosqvist et al, pp. 374-375.

[43] Hanna Rosqvist et al, p. 375.

[44]Hanna Rosqvist et al, p. 376.

[45] Hanna Rosqvist et al, p. 377.

[46]Chloë Jordan, p. 22.

[47]Joyce Davidson, Michael Orsini, pp. 285-286.

[48]Joyce Davidson, Michael Orsini, p. 299.

[49]Gill Valentine, Tracey Skelton, p. 481.

[50]Joyce Davidson, Michael Orsini, pp. 290-296.

[51]Joyce Davidson, Michael Orsini, p. 297.

[52]Joyce Davidson, Michael Orsini, p. 298.

[53]Martijn Dekker, Joyce Davidson, Michael Orsini.

[54]Hanna Rosqvist et al.

[55] John Austin, How to do Things with Words. The William James Lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1955, (Oxford: Clarendon Press) (1962).

[56] Joyce Davidson & Michael Orsini, p. 293.

[57] Jean Burgess & Joshua Green, “Agency and Controversy in the YouTube Community”, in Internet Research 9.0: Rethinking Community, Rethinking Place, Copenhagen (15-18 October 2008).

[58]Mimi White, James Schwoch, p. 5.

[59] Gérard Genette, “Introduction to the Paratext”, New Literary History 22:2, “Probings: Art, Criticism, Genre” (1991), p. 261.

[60]Mimi White, James Schwoch, p. 5.

[61]Liesbet van Zoonen et al, “Performing citizenship on YouTube: activism, satire and online debate around the anti-Islam video Fitna”, Critical Discourse Studies(2010), 7:4, p. 253.

[62]Liesbet van Zoonen et al, pp. 251-253.

[63]Liesbet van Zoonen et al, p. 251.

[64] Liesbet van Zoonen et al, p. 252.

[65] Liesbet van Zoonen et al, pp. 252-252.

[66] Craig Thomson, “What it’s like to walk down a street when you have autism or an ASD”, YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=plPNhooUUuc (2010), date accessed 18 May 2015.

[67] Arman Kody, “Re What it’s like to walk down a street when you have autism or an ASD”, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Rj-s2gW3x4 (2011), date accessed 14 April 2016.

[68]silentmiaow, “In My Language”, YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnylM1hI2jc (2006), date accessed 18 May 2015.

[69]Eugen Bleuler, Demenia Praecox oder Gruppe der Schizophrenien, (Leipzig: Franz Deuticke) (1910).

[70] Davidson Joyce, “‘In a World of her Own…’: Re-presenting alienation and emotion in the lives and writings of women with autism”, Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography(2007), 14:6.

[71] Alicia Broderick, Ari Ne’eman, pp. 463-466.

[72] Hannah Ebben, “In constant encounter with one’s environment: Presenting counter-metaphors in the study of the discourse of autism and negotiations of space in literature and visual culture”, MA thesis supervised by László Munteán and Mitzi Waltz (2015).

[73]Arthur Coca, Robert Cooke, “On the classification of the phenomena of hypersensitiveness”, Journal of Immunology(1923), 8.

[74]Helmut Willke, Atopia. Studiem zur atopischen Gesellschaft, (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp) (2001).

[75] Michel Foucault, “Different Spaces”, in Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology, ed. James Faubion, (London: Penguin Books) (1984 [1976]). (1998), p. 177.

[76]Michel Foucault, p. 178.

[77] Ben Belek, “I Believe It Can Change the Way Things Are”. Identity Constructions Among Video-Bloggers with Asperger’s Syndrome on Youtube, (Diemen: AMB) (2013),pp. 45-46 .

[78]Ben Belek, p. 46.

[79]Ben Belek, pp. 46-47.

[80]Ben Belek, p. 47.

[81]Ben Belek, p. 48.

[82] Ben Belek, pp. 50-51 .

[83]Ben Belek, pp. 52-53.

[84]Ben Belek, pp. 66-68.

[85]Hannah Ebben.

Hannah Ebben is a PhD student at the Autism Centre at Sheffield Hallam University. She gained her BA degree in Cultural Studies and her MARes degree in Art and Visual Culture at Radboud University in Nijmegen, The Netherlands. In 2015, she worked as a junior researcher and project contributor at the Dutch research group Disability Studies in Nederland. Her research interests are the study of autism as a discourse in popular culture and society and potentialities for depathologized language and practices in autism advocacy and activism. With her background in the Humanities, she is conducting her PhD research in autism metaphors in film and formulating potential new and more inclusive and enabling counter-metaphors. She eventually hopes to extend her expertise to inclusive practices and methods in the interdisciplinary field of Disability Studies. Outside of the field of academia, she has been active as a presenter during British events organised for and by autistic people.

“Nostalgia for the future…” – prosthesis as a pop-cultural weapon?

Marta Stańczyk

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 1, pp. 68-81

Marta Stańczyk

Jagiellonian University

“Nostalgia for the future…” – prosthesis as a pop-cultural weapon?


Prostheses—especially those created by prosthetic limb designer Sophie de Oliveira Barata—are not treated as disempowering artefacts, but as a McLuhanian extension of man: a tool for creating identity and style while keeping individuality and offering liberation from victim status. Prostheses are not a weakness but a strength, a potential. Moreover, technology is not gender neutral, as prostheses can provide new options for women. “Glamputees” reinterpret notions of the female body, beauty standards, minorities’ spaces, etc. On the other hand, so-called alternative modelling recreates the traditional image of woman. In the following article, I would like to show the dynamics of the “extended” or “bionic” body and the social environment by rereading prosthesis through the theories of Vivian Sobchack, Anne Marie Balsamo, and Donna Haraway. In this way, feminist discourse enhances ambivalent perspectives on the phenomenon of alternative limbs.

Key words: prosthesis, disability studies, feminism, transhumanism, popular culture, ideology



“Forget what you know about disability”: this is the motto from the videoclip of Viktoria Modesta’s song Prototype. It designates what the future prototype of a human should be: part human, part technology. It combines natural and artificial instead of juxtaposing these notions, and by doing so, it highlights a new body image for women and new adaptation patterns for disabled people. ‘Armed’ with one of her prostheses, a spike leg, the Latvian artist becomes both an incarnation of monstrous femininity and a superhero—a pop-cultural cyborg overcoming biological deficiencies. Thus, Modesta becomes a battlefield for much discourse. Not only is her identity fluid, but so is her body. On the one hand, Modesta objects to the understanding of amputees as victims defined by their lacking limb. On the other, she has functioned as a glitch in the system to achieve celebrity status; she is known as a ‘glamputee’, reclaiming the traditional image of women while ostensibly reinterpreting it. In this case, the ambivalence of the phenomenon of alternative limbs is enhanced by feminist discourse.

Only by combining feminist thought, disability studies, technological progressivism, and cultural post-humanism can we approach the complexity and dynamics of the “extended/bionic body” in the contemporary social environment. The best way this methodological hybridity is embodied is by evoking the figure of a cyborg, popularised by Donna J. Haraway. Although overused and often misinterpreted, this theory of metaphorical “(con)fusion between the human and the machine”[1] has been actualized by modern glamputees: not only Modesta, but also Angel Giuffria, Amina Munster, Grace Madeville, Jo-Jo Cranfield, and above all Aimee Mullins. These women show that prostheses might be a way to claim positive ownership of their own bodies, to relocate themselves in traditional social structures. Their approach to body as a cultural construct is not negative: it is an opportunity for human enhancement, or even postbiological evolution. Therefore, it is an extension of the everyday practice of body modification, such as dieting, piercing, tanning and bodybuilding. Viktoria Modesta and Aimee Mullins are both extreme bodybuilders.

This shift of emphasis from disability studies to the body modification approach accentuates the productivity of the cyborg metaphor. There is a displacement: the former term conjures victimisation, passivity, exclusion, lack of agency, and objectification, while the second suggests liberation, negotiation, agency, (radical) identity statement, and (post-humanist) performativity. However, as I describe cases of women only[2], the issue of emancipating potential is expressed in rather equivocal terms: notions of femininity, beautification, media representation, and so on, collide with the post-gendered world implicated by the cyborg metaphor, becoming the epitome of hegemonic culture.

 Prosthesis Whisperers, or the context of disability studies

As Liat Ben-Moshe, Anthony J. Nocella and A. J. Withers critically pointed out, “Disability is fluid and contextual rather than biological. This does not mean that biology does not play out in our minds and bodies, but that the definition of disability is imposed upon certain kinds of minds and bodies… However, more than that, disability, if understood as constructed through historical and cultural processes, should be seen not as a binary but as a continuum. One is always dis/abled in relation to the context in which one is put”.[3] Disability studies are still engulfed in a more traditional, essentialist identity project that imposes a sense of “normalcy” defined by a dominating group that exerts these definitions on others, and creates dichotomies marginalising ab-normal and dis-abled. While “[s]ome in disability culture and activism view disability as a source of pride, some as a form of biodiversity”[4], common understanding still stresses the absence. Although full of empathy, one of the symptomatic definitions from the U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act explains disability as “a difficulty or the inability to perform one or more major life activities because of impairment”[5].

The psychosocial consequences of amputation and adjusting to a prosthesis are challenging under this framework. Amputees must learn to accept a new body image, deal with perceived or actual social stigma, potential loss of independence, changes in social roles, etc.[6] “[B]odily appearance affects both social identifications and self-definitions”[7] and this stigmatisation is gender-determined. As the Dublin Psychoprosthetic Group revealed:

only higher functional satisfaction with the prosthesis was correlated with daily hours of prosthetic use in males, while greater prosthetic use in females was correlated with higher functional, aesthetic and weight satisfaction with the prosthesis. For male participants, functionality was important, perhaps relating to traditional social roles. For females, it appears that aesthetics is important perhaps through helping to sustain a sense of femininity.[8]

Therefore, many factors are involved in the transformation of the prosthesis into a tool or a corporeal structure. Cosmesis is one such factor that prefers a (hyper)realistic-looking prosthesis (so called cosmeses), but also simulates full-ability, disguises the artificial limb under clothing, and avoids situations which demand exposure, etc. This enables the achievement of a sense of “normalcy” or even “humanness”. However, as phenomenologist Craig Murray points out, “not all participants considered cosmesis as important, and a number of participants actually conveyed a distaste for the use of cosmetic limbs in general, seeing such use as indicative of an inability to ‘deal with’ limb loss/absence, or even as conspiring in an oppressive climate in which people with limb loss/absence were pressured to conform, or be ashamed of their prosthesis use. (…) a sizeable number of participants were militant in an approach that might be termed ‘prosthetic limb display’. Here, participants displayed their amputation, limb absence and prosthesis use as a method of defiance, resistance, and to challenge notions of disability. As such, ‘prosthetic display’ held profound personal significance and meaning to self and social identity, and was part of the politicisation of disability”[9]. In this case, prostheses are not only praised for their functionality, but also for their performative potential. They may become the ground of a new identity, self-expression, pride, and social change. This need-directed, individualistic approach to prosthetic design is a guide to rejecting anthropomorphism, sublimating high technology, and creating a transhumanist identity on this basis.

Furiosa’s prosthesis – feminist approaches to prostheses

Before mentioning a small range of apologetic statements on a culturally grounded approach, it would be useful to introduce Vivian Sobchack’s phenomenology of prosthesis use. In the article A Leg to Stand On: Prosthetics, Metaphor, and Materiality, she refuses to compare her experiences as an amputee to Roland Barthes’ Jet-Man metaphor or H+ standpoints. She distinguishes her prosthetic and the prosthetic: a phenomenologically lived artefact and a cultural metaphor.[10] Academic overuse of this notion (e.g. prosthetic memory, consciousness, aesthetics) “for describing a vague and shifting constellation of relationships among bodies, technologies, and subjectivities” causes displacement and diminishes “response-ability”[11]. Sobchack calls for a more literal and material approach which has been “amputated” by cultural studies. This remarginalisation of amputees is something against which Sobchack is fighting. Her article is “intended to ground and lend some ‘unsexy’ material weight to a contemporary prosthetic imagination that privileges the exotic (indeed, perhaps erotic) idea rather than the mundane reality of my intimate relations with ‘high’ technology”[12].

Sobchack’s arguments are justifiable as an admonition not to divide (grounded on actual experiences) social studies and humanities, stating implicitly that the latter could be parasitical. However, sometimes this arbitrariness supports a change of thinking. Prostheses users are not an example of equal rights and possibilities, but rather they produce a new paradigm that is programmed and narrated through technology. In the case of Modesta and others, technology is a tool of subversion, combating prejudices about disabled people, and even creating an alternative hierarchy. Rejecting medical discourses and disciplinary practices can be a medium of renewal: “transubstantiation of the key elements of experience”[13] via “metallisation”, extensions, or body hacking (the next “sexy” metaphor, as Sobchack asks). There is a place for the other in the non-hierarchical, “remixed” world without power relations that was postulated by Donna J. Haraway.

Although technology is often treated as a way of excluding women, this is what Haraway focuses on. According to her, technology supports a non-dualistic, non-essentialist, post-modern worldview, while blurring boundaries and deactivating them through the image of the cyborg. Haraway sees the world as inhabited by chimeras, hybrids of machine and organism, and endless possibilities of transformation: “So my cyborg myth is about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities which progressive people might explore as one part of needed political work”[14]. Haraway’s manifesto is not only a technofeminist theory, but also a programme of social change: “The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics”[15]. To manage it, Haraway requires cyborg writing, a reformulation of écriture feminine: “The tools are often stories, retold stories, versions that reverse and displace the hierarchical dualisms of naturalized identities”[16]. Expanding Foucauldian tradition, the texts to be rewritten are bodies and societies: “There is no drive in cyborgs to produce total theory, but there is an intimate experience of boundaries, their construction and deconstruction. There is a myth system waiting to become a political language to ground one way of looking at science and technology and challenging the informatics of domination in order to act potently”.[17]

Today, many bodies invite rereading via the creation of new corporeal narratives. Of these, prostheses are amongst the most powerful, raising concerns expressed by post-human and post-gendered concepts. Bodies composed of metal, glass, and plastic elements re-evaluate the notion of anthropomorphism and negotiate new meanings, especially in the case of women who are traditionally associated with biological functions and irrational status of nature. Bearing Sobchack’s critic in mind, I will not put female prosthesis users in the same paradigm of social change, feminist politics, and contemporary postmodern identity. I would rather focus on particular strategies while highlighting their ambivalent status. Viktoria Modesta and her video clip Prototype are my main references, but I also want to mention her role model and the prosthetic designers Aimee Mullins and Sophie de Oliveira Barata, respectively.

Speaking doll: Aimee Mullins

Aimee Mullins was born with fibular hemimelia, a condition that resulted in the amputation of her both legs below the knees. However, as we can read on her webpage, “[b]y age two, she had learned to walk on prosthetic legs, and spent her childhood doing the usual athletic activities of her peers: swimming, biking, softball, soccer, and skiing, always alongside ‘able-bodied’ kids”[18]. The rest of her biography contains information about educational and sports successes. She was a medal winner at the 1996 Paralympics, where she wore her sprinting legs: Flex-Foot Cheetah designed by Van Phillips. Nowadays, they are commonly used by amputee athletes, but Mullins was the first person to do so, which brought her a lot of publicity. She has become a spokesperson for disabled people, encouraging change and discussing prosthetic design and body image at numerous conferences. She has worked as a model (e.g. appearing for Alexander McQueen in a runway show in beautiful wooden carved prostheses) and an actor, debuting in multiple roles in Matthew Barney’s avant-garde Cremaster 3 (wearing leopard and glass/polyurethane alternative limbs amongst others). Called “Wonder Woman” or “Fashion-able”, located in the context of evolution (Italian Wired published an article about her entitled Evoluzione in corso[19]) and human enhancement, she tries to wield influence on society by renarrating disability and being at the forefront of cultural change.

In one of her popular TED talks, she stated an important shift:

The conversation with society has changed profoundly in this last decade. It is no longer a conversation about overcoming deficiency. It’s a conversation about augmentation. It’s a conversation about potential. A prosthetic limb doesn’t represent the need to replace loss anymore. (…) [P]eople that society once considered to be disabled can now become the architects of their own identities and indeed continue to change those identities by designing their bodies from a place of empowerment[20].

Even Vivian Sobchack mentions Aimee Mullins and her three pairs of legs (as a matter of fact she has twelve pairs in different shapes, made of various materials, and enabling her to modify her height) as an example of conjoining literal (prosthetic experience) and figural (prosthesis as a metaphor).[21] However, the American writer is alerted by the ambiguity evoked by an aestheticization of the disability discourse summarised in the statement “Poetry matters”.

Mullins places prosthesis in the body modification arena, undermining its status: “What does a beautiful woman look like? What is a sexy body? And what does it mean to have a disability? Pamela Anderson has more prosthetic in her body than me… Nobody calls her disabled”. Something we can call a joke becomes a serious argument about body image, canons of beauty, and body-oriented technologies. The latter shows that plastic surgery may be disempowering, whereas prostheses might be emancipating. However, this includes aesthetics; Mullins treats her prostheses as sculptures. Rejecting the anthropomorphic, she advances a beauty ideal, offering new possibilities.

Kim Toffoletti does not combine plastic with a symbol of consumptionism, and thus being fake and homogeneous. This is related to elasticity, variability, and transformation. Toffoletti rejects traditional depictions of Barbie dolls and their feminist frame of reference and tries to rework this narrative via the notion of plasticity. She points out that “it can serve as a strategy to hack into the phallogocentric codes that structure ideals of femininity and scramble interpretations of embodiment that reinscribe an unchanging and essentialised myth of woman as tied to nature”.[22] Regardless of the potentially subversive quality, this reinterpretation can have, Toffoletti writes about post-human examples: a CD cover for post-gendered Marilyn Manson, an advertisement inspired by body hacktivism, and bio-artists’ experiments. Mullins, with her pair of everyday Barbie-like legs (and named of one of the most beautiful people in the world by People), seems to reclaim traditional body image. Although inspirational, admirable and brave, Mullins is more often associated with the catwalk than Stelarc, and with a celebrity status rather than activist actions. Pop culture gladly consumes her activities, which can be liberating, but, alas, mostly for her, not for the group she is representing.

Prosthetic fetishism: Viktoria Modesta

While Mullins is a white, upper-middle class American, Modesta’s background is different: she was socially and economically underprivileged, which affected her access to prosthetics and medical help. She was born in Latvia (under the Soviet regime) and her bone structure was severely damaged during a forced birth. At the age of 12, the artist moved with her mother to London where she became passionate about the aesthetic eccentricity of underground subculture. Three years later, when she started a career in alternative modelling, “she decided that realising her dreams and exploring her potential was simply not possible with the uncertainty of her dysfunctioning leg; a burden left after 15 surgeries under the USSR system. Inspired by creative cult imagery of Alexander McQueen and Matthew Barney [with whom Mullins was working – M. S.], VM approached doctors to have her lower limb amputated and replaced by a prosthetic in order to finally take control over her body. After a five-year battle to find support for her decision among the medical profession, she finally had a voluntary operation at the age of 20”.[23] Essentially, this bio from Modesta’s webpage is a story about gaining morphological freedom. Coupled with a feminist or even—due to her ancestry—postcolonial approach, Modesta could be the perfect figure of a cyborg, progressive body-identity relation, and human augmentation in an oppressive social context. “I upgraded my opportunities, my comfort, my body. It was really empowering”.[24] Deliberately exploring the issue of modern identity, combining technology and performance, fashion and avant-garde, MTV and MIT Lab, she changes emancipatory disability narration from clichéd Helen Keller stories and moves it closer to cyberpunk. As Haraway puts it: “the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion”[25].

Additionally, there is a notion of reclaiming one’s body, taking control of it: “[t]he profound sense that a prosthetic limb could be a ‘life enhancing tool’ was apparent”[26]. On the other hand, Modesta highlights the significance of reflecting one’s personality through an altered body image; this is precisely what gains media attention and opens numerous doors, even those of breakfast television. As Anna Moore wrote in an article in The Times, “She’s stunning—with her rolled hair and doll face, she looks like Bettie Page landed in Blade Runner—but the biggest buzz is reserved for her legs”[27]. Brass leg, stereo leg, light leg, spike leg, crystal leg; these are a few examples of Modesta’s alternative limbs functioning as both fashion items and art projects, modifying her into a “bionic pop artist”.

Viktoria Modesta intensifies Mullins’ ambiguous interconnection with pop culture and the contemporary media landscape, while Aimee Mullins spoke about the “X factor”, the potential of human will that is often ignored by physicians, something unpredictable and unappreciated[28]. Modesta performed in The X Factor final and made her first music video, and Mullins contributed to another TED talk. These differences may generate Haraway’s future heteroglossia. Nevertheless, leaving all the differences aside, both women are interconnected by their equivocal status in popular culture. The video clip accompanying the song Prototype is Modesta’s most discussed work to date.[29] It was produced as a part of the “Born Risky” campaign launched by Channel 4, a British TV channel particularly committed to issues of diversity, cumulating alternative voices and taking creative risks. The first imagery is mostly aural: a pointed tool rings out sharply as it comes down onto a glass surface. It later turns out the tool in question is the singer’s spike leg. The abstract quality of this scene announces a new nameless experience. The next image presents Modesta as a queen or even a goddess. Sitting on a high throne, she is surrounded by three hooded faceless men performing amputation surgery on her leg. The main plot line of this video clip concentrates on VM’s cult in some historically undefined police state—her Betty Boop-like cartoon character transforming to a superhero inspires a rebellion (symbolically represented by moths flying around the illuminated limb in a leitmotiv). Her prosthesis wields superpower, but its connotations with new identity and individuality are more important, encouraging people to stand up for themselves. This interpretation is validated by another scene in which VM is engaged in sexual relations with a man and a woman while not wearing any of her prostheses, suggesting that her identity is fluid, more complex, non-dualistic and receptive.

The first problematic issue with this clip occurs in the final scene: VM, wearing her spike leg, is walking and then starts a fierce dance. In spite of the warrior-like stylization, her empowering message is weakened by the puppet strings attached to her body (another doll-like, gendered metaphor after Mullins’ Barbie legs). However, there are more inaccuracies within the context in which she puts herself. Firstly, her body is fragmented—and as Laura Mulvey explained in Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema—it fetishizes women and represents her as an object of male desire.[30] As the clip’s director, Saam Farahmand, explains: “It was very important to create a deliberate collision between (the physical realities of amputation) and the fantasies of sexualisation in pop culture”[31]. However, why combine the two instead of creating a new language based on the plot of female subversive powers? An uncontrollable and therefore threatening force is reduced to a sexualized object. Secondly, Modesta interchanges an anthropocentric paradigm with an egocentric one: seemingly anarchistic movement turns into a subsequent authoritarian system. Moreover, it brings the cyborg back into its primal militant context. As Haraway emphasises, “I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess”[32], but Modesta inverts this attitude. She recreates the cyborg metaphor not to blur boundaries, but to create new ones. This subject-centred approach stems from treating one’s life as a work of art and does not take into account a wider social context.[33] In the first verse, she sings “We’re playing god/And now’s the time/We’re limitless, we’re not confined/It’s our future”, but after that she immediately changes “we” for “I”.

Modesta does not think about productive social change, her DIY ethos[34] substitutes collective thinking and that is how she goes a step further than Aimee Mullins towards popular culture and standardized identity. Attached to a more underground culture, but yearning for common recognition, the Latvian artist merges subversive and normative figures and puts herself at the forefront of change, while recreating traditional structures. However, her individuality is not as extreme as she presents it; it rather depends on the designer of the prosthetic.

Prosthetic personality: Sophie de Oliveira Barata

Writing about “technoculture”, Anne Marie Balsamo points out:

[t]his is a mind-set that enables people to think with technology, to transform what is known into what is possible. This imagination is performative: it improvises without constraints to create something new. (…) In the active engagement between human beings and technological elements, culture too is reworked through the development of new narratives, new myths, new rituals, new modes of expression, and new knowledge that make the innovation meaningful.[35]

By creating new technologies, people can reproduce cultural structures and offer alternate ways of thinking, because innovations are not objects, but more “hybrid socio-technical-cultural assemblages”.[36] Therefore, technology can provide us with new possibilities, if access to creating it and programming social and cultural transformation is open. Nevertheless, as long as women have limited access to it, they remain only objects of scientific discourse.

The process of doing things differently may be the work of women, but not the expression of essential feminine insight; it may seek different horizons, but not necessarily better ones; it may manifest different values, but not different outcomes. The gendered transformation of the technological imagination is not solely a matter of theory, but a matter of praxis.[37]

Therefore, it is not a case of ordinary gender appropriation but—once again—enhancement and equality.

This can be achieved with Sophie de Oliveira Barata and her Alternative Limb Prosthesis (AltLimbPro). Having studied special-effects prosthetics in London, she has been customising prostheses in her London workshop since September 2011, creating them as an expression of personality and individual traits. Functionality remains important, but de Oliveira Barata’s adjustments help in adaptation after limb loss in terms of new body image acceptance and fighting victimisation and social stigma: “It’s drawing attention to their disability in a positive way… Rather than people seeing what’s missing, it’s about what they’ve got… Having an alternative limb is about claiming control and saying ‘I’m an individual and this reflects who I am'”.[38] So called ‘gadget limbs’ trigger discussion in a more potent way than amputees themselves. Although without any feminist agenda, de Oliveira Barata’s projects meet mostly female expectations. With the exception of, for example, veteran Ryan Sneary and his anatomical leg, ArtLimbPro has created prostheses such as a floral porcelain leg, a snake arm, feather armour, and Priscilla. All are meticulously made, with an artistic or even surrealist touch, satisfying not only the fashion aspirations of their owners and alternative modelling’s quirky demands, but even exhibition curators. These tools are “upgrading” disabled people who can still be on the margins of society, but are also now seen as free agents, performance artists and directors of gazes. It offers both empowering potential and pop-cultural lure.

This ambiguity is something we cannot remove. Alternative limbs (not only those made by de Oliveira Barata) help in the process of politicization of the body, upgrading humanity, and even creating body 2.0 which can be an expression of transhumanist ideals. However, these prostheses are always interconnected with a cobweb of oppressive structures. Aimee Mullins and Viktoria Modesta have a pop-cultural potential that emerges from their privileged position as young and good-looking women.[39] These features attract the cultural industry, which overuses the potential of these models’ counterfeit alternativity. They both live in developed countries and were raised in a hegemonic society; therefore, their race is entwined ideologically with their high position and publicity, causing (re)exclusion and (re)disempowerement of the disabled. Their status transforms them into living artefacts and increases their opportunities, overshadowing Giorgio Agamben’s “rest”. Modesta and Mullins are intercepted by pop-culture: they are H+ Barbie dolls with diminished potential of social change by the same means they are using for publicity and even for social agenda. Although rather elitist, de Oliveira Barata’s work seems more potent, transgressing boundaries not on stage, but in her workshop. She creates the transhumanist ‘Other’, but also makes the human body a site of inquiry, exposing it to ideological discourse. Is this a perfect human free of limitations or a product used instrumentally and arbitrarily by traditional notions of popular culture? The body (even hard-wired) remains political and highly ambiguous.


 Aimee Mullins, http://www.aimeemullins.com/about.php, date accessed 15 April 2015.

Anthony Andrew, “Meet the woman who turns artificial limbs into works of art”, The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/dec/29/artificial-limbs-art-de-oliveira-barata-interview, date accessed 15 April 2016.

Balsamo Anne, Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work, (Durham-London: Duke University Press) (2011).

Ben-Moshe Liat, Nocella Anthony J., Withers A. J., “Queer-Cripping Anarchism: Intersections and Reflections on Anarchism, Queer-ness, and Dis-Ability”, in Queering Anarchism, ed. C. B. Daring, J. Rogue, Deric Shannon, and Abbey Volcano (Oakland, CA: AK Press) (2013).

Ben-Moshe Liat, Magaña Sandy, “An Introduction to Race, Gender, and Disability: Intersectionality, Disability Studies, and Families of Color”, Women, Gender, and Families of Color 2:2 (2014).

Diprose Rosalyn, “Continental Philosophy: Thinking the Corporeal with the Political”, The Southern Journal of Philosophy 50:2 (2012).

Gutierrez Jené, “Prosthetic Limbs as Art: Sophie de Oliveira Barata’s Alternative Limb Project’, Beautiful/Deacy, http://beautifuldecay.com/2013/11/18/prosthetic-limbs-art-sophie-de-oliveira-baratas-alternative-limb-project/, date accessed 15 April 2016.

Haraway Donna J., Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, (New York: Routledge) (1991).

Mansfield Nick, Subjectivity: Theories of the Self from Freud to Haraway, (Sydney: Allen&Unwin) (2000).

McLaren Margaret A., Feminism, Foucault, and Embodied Subjectivity, (Albany: State University of New York Press) (2002).

Monroe Jazz, “‘Bionic Pop Star’ Viktoria Modesta invades X Factor final”,  Dazed, http://www.dazeddigital.com/music/article/22934/1/bionic-pop-star-viktoria-modesta-invades-x-factor-final, date accessed 15 April 2016.

Moore Anna, “Viktoria Modesta: ‘My leg is gone. I have nothing to hide”, The Times, http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/life/article3530833.ece, date accessed 15 April 2016.

Mullins Aimee, Aimee Mullins: Szansa, którą niosą przeciwności, TEDMED 2009, https://www.ted.com/talks/aimee_mullins_the_opportunity_of_adversity?language=pl, date accessed 15 April 2016.

Mulvey Laura, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Screen 16:3 (1975), pp. 6-18

Murray Craig (ed.), Amputation, Prosthesis Use, and Phantom Limb Pain: An Interdisciplinary Perspective, (New York-Dordrecht-Heidelberg-London: Springer) (2010).

Sevo Ruta, Basics About Disabilities and Science and Engineering Education, (Atlanta, GA: under the direction of Robert L. Todd, Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access, Georgia Institute of Technology) (2011).

Sobchack Vivian, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture, (Berkeley–Los Angeles–London: Univerity of California Press) (2004).

Toffoletti Kim, Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls: Feminism, Popular Culture and the Posthuman Body, (London-New York: I.B. Tauris) (2007).

Viktoria Modesta, http://www.viktoriamodesta.com/, date accessed 15 April 2016.


[1] Kim Toffoletti, Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls: Feminism, Popular Culture, and the Posthuman Body, (London–New York: I.B. Tauris) (2007), p. 2.

[2] Modern veterans could be an interesting case study: “[B]ig change has been wrought by the number of military amputees produced by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. ‘They’re quite proud of their limbs,’ says De Oliveira Barata. ‘They tend to have a different mode of thinking in general, perhaps because they’ve been prepped up about what might happen. They’re quite impressive. They have this attitude as if it’s almost a badge of honour and I think that has a knock-on effect. The metal work and the componentry is becoming more and more slick and robotic, and they love all that.’” (Andrew Anthony, “Meet the woman who turns artificial limbs into works of art”, The Guardian,

http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/dec/29/artificial-limbs-art-de-oliveira-barata-interview, date accessed 15 April 2016).

[3] Liat Ben-Moshe, Anthony J. Nocella, A. J. Withers, “Queer-Cripping Anarchism: Intersections and Reflections on Anarchism, Queer-ness, and Dis-Ability”, in Queering Anarchism, ed. C. B. Daring, J. Rogue, Deric Shannon, and Abbey Volcano (Oakland, CA: AK Press) (2013), pp. 210-211.

[4] Liat Ben-Moshe and Sandy Magaña, “An Introduction to Race, Gender, and Disability: Intersectionality, Disability Studies, and Families of Color”, Women, Gender, and Families of Color 2:2 (2014), p. 106.

[5] Ruta Sevo, Basics About Disabilities and Science and Engineering Education, (Atlanta, GA: under the direction of Robert L. Todd, Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access, Georgia Institute of Technology) (2011), p. 31.

[6] See: Elisabeth Schaffalitzky, Pamela Gallagher, Deirdre Desmond, and Malcolm MacLachlan, “Adaptation to Amputation and Prosthesis Use”, in Amputation, Prosthesis Use, and Phantom Limb Pain: An Interdisciplinary Perspective, ed. Craig Murray (New York-Dordrecht-Heidelberg-London: Springer) (2010), pp. 65-66.

[7] Elisabeth Schaffalitzky, Pamela Gallagher, Deirdre Desmond, and Malcolm MacLachlan, p. 70.

[8] Elisabeth Schaffalitzky, Pamela Gallagher, Deirdre Desmond, and Malcolm MacLachlan, p. 71.

[9] Craig Murray, “Understanding Adjustment and Coping to Limb Loss and Absence through Phenomenologies of Prosthesis Use”, in Amputation, Prosthesis Use, and Phantom Limb Pain: An Interdisciplinary Perspective, ed. Craig Murray (New York-Dordrecht-Heidelberg-London: Springer) (2010), pp. 88-89.

[10] See: Vivian Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture, (Berkeley–Los Angeles–London: Univerity of California Press) (2004), p. 206.

[11] Vivian Sobchack, p. 207.

[12] Vivian Sobchack, pp. 219-220.

[13] Nick Mansfield, Subjectivity: Theories of the Self from Freud to Haraway, (Sydney: Allen&Unwin) (2000), p. 152.

[14] Donna J. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, (New York: Routledge) (1991), p. 154.

[15] Donna J. Haraway, p. 150.

[16] Donna J. Haraway, p. 175.

[17] Donna J. Haraway, p. 181.

[18] Aimee Mullins, http://www.aimeemullins.com/about.php, date accessed 15 April 2016.

[19] Jill Greenberg, Cover of Wired Italy: Evoluzione in corso, April 2009.

[20] Aimee Mullins i jej 12 par nóg, TED 2009,

https://www.ted.com/talks/aimee_mullins_prosthetic_aesthetics?language=pl#t-519012, date accessed 15 April 2016.

[21] See: Vivian Sobchack, p. 225.

[22] Kim Toffoletti, p. 79.

[23] Viktoria Modesta, http://www.viktoriamodesta.com/, date accessed 15 April 2016.

[24] Andrew Anthony.

[25] Donna J. Haraway, p. 149.

[26] Craig Murray, p. 87.

[27] Anna Moore, “Viktoria Modesta: ‘My leg is gone. I have nothing to hide”, The Times, http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/life/article3530833.ece, date accessed 15 April 2016.

[28] Aimee Mullins: Szansa, którą niosą przeciwności, TEDMED 2009, https://www.ted.com/talks/aimee_mullins_the_opportunity_of_adversity?language=pl, date accessed 15 April 2016.

[29] Modesta recorded her first EP but none of her songs have gained broad publicity.

[30] See: Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Screen 16:3 (1975), pp. 6-18.

[31] Jazz Monroe, “‘Bionic Pop Star’ Viktoria Modesta invades X Factor final”,  Dazed, http://www.dazeddigital.com/music/article/22934/1/bionic-pop-star-viktoria-modesta-invades-x-factor-final, date accessed 15 April 2016.

[32] Donna J. Harway, p. 181.

[33] See: a feminist critic of late Foucault thought described by Margaret A. McLaren, Feminism, Foucault, and Embodied Subjectivity, (Albany: State University of New York Press) (2002), pp. 69-80.

[34] This approach was criticized by Liat Ben-Moshe et al., 2013.

[35] Anne Balsamo, Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work, (Durham–London: Duke University Press) (2011), pp. 6-7.

[36] Anne Balsamo, p. 9.

[37] Anne Balsamo, p. 33.

[38] Jené Gutierrez, “Prosthetic Limbs as Art: Sophie de Oliveira Barata’s Alternative Limb Project”, Beautiful/Deacy, http://beautifuldecay.com/2013/11/18/prosthetic-limbs-art-sophie-de-oliveira-baratas-alternative-limb-project/, date accessed 15 April 2016.

[39] What is important, articles about Oscar Pistorius highlighted his skills (e.g. Blade Runner), while Mullins is described mostly through her appearance.

Marta Stańczyk is a PhD candidate at the Jagiellonian University, Cracow. She is working on her dissertation on sensuous theory and its possible combinations with critical theory. Her current area of study is focused on spectatorship, cinematic experience, film-phenomenology, affect and embodiment, and feminism.

Ableism and Futuristic Technology: The Enhancement of ‘No Body’ in the Films Lucy and Her

nili R. Broyer

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 1, pp. 82-98

nili R. Broyer

University of Illinois at Chicago


Ableism and Futuristic Technology: The Enhancement of ‘No Body’ in the Films Lucy and Her[1]




Implementing a disability studies and cultural studies framework, this paper offers a critical analysis of the two popular science fiction films: Lucy (Besson, 2014) and Her (Jonze, 2013). In both films, Scarlett Johansson plays the leading female character. In Lucy, the protagonist is a human being who experiences radical transformation due to an overdose of a new kind of drug, while in Her, Samantha is an operating system designed to evolve. Despite their clear differences, Lucy and Samantha share a similar destiny. Eventually, both of these figures develop into a super-able consciousness that continues to evolve beyond the restrictions of the physical world.

I argue that the two films reflect what Gregor Wolbring termed as “the transhumanized version of ableism”. Transhumanism is a contemporary social movement that calls for a future in which biological boundaries are overcome. From a transhumanist perspective, all human bodies—impaired or able-bodied alike—are inferior, deficient and ultimately disabled. As such, they all need to be ‘cured.’ Thus, the transhumanist solution becomes not the enhancement of the body, but rather the creation of an independent enhanced mind. Lucy’s and Her’s representations of an advanced mind with no body are aligned with this futuristic aspiration. Both offer the viewers a first glance at a potential future in which technology enables consciousness to prosper without a body.

At the end of both films, the body is envisioned as an unnecessary barrier—as an obstacle to reaching a more advanced state of being. This dismissive portrayal of the body is achieved by the well-known trope of cure. Following the enhancement of her mind, Lucy’s body begins to deform and disintegrate to the point that she almost dies. By absorbing more doses of the drug, her mind succeeds in overcoming her body and eventually Lucy is ‘cured’ from its restrictions. On the other hand, Samantha cannot be considered a real human being. This ‘disabling’ state is resolved by her ongoing growth and change of attitude. Finally, Samantha is ‘cured’ and proved superior to flesh and blood human beings. These ‘ultra-cure’ narratives are recognized by me to be part of a fundamental long-lasting ableist western ideology and an integral part of the Eugenic doctrine.

Key words: ableism, transhumanism, enhancement, science fiction, cure, complex embodiment, eugenics

Introduction: The Transhumanist’s Disability Metaphor

At first glance, disability is nowhere to be found in the two popular science fiction (SF) films: Lucy[2] and Her[3]. However, watching these films more carefully, the viewer may start to realize that some version of disability representation does appear in each film. During each of these films, there are specific scenes that portray the leading female characters, both of which are played by Scarlett Johansson, as disabled because of her unique relation towards the body. In Lucy, a 2014 film written and directed by Luc Besson, Lucy succeeds in “colonizing” her own brain after absorbing a significant amount of a new drug. However, due to the process by which her mind is enhanced, Lucy’s body begins to deform and disintegrate. Undergoing a near-death experience, there is a (temporary) recognition of her total dependency on her body. On the other hand, in Her, a 2013 film written, directed, and produced by Spike Jonze, Samantha fantasizes that she has a body. Because she is an operating system (OS) who “lives in a computer”, she sees herself as “somehow inferior” to flesh and blood human beings. Although these two different relationships with the human body contrast each other, these scenes shape both female protagonists as disabled characters.

The disability studies scholars David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder scrutinize the representation of disability in literature and cinema. They argue that disability frequently serves as a powerful metaphor to explain something else. They coined the term “narrative prosthesis” to describe this widespread phenomenon[4]. I argue that the portrayals of the leading female characters in Lucy and Her fit this pattern. Furthermore, I claim that despite the differences between the movies, in both of the films, the human body is constructed as an unnecessary barrier via this metaphor of disability and cure narrative. Essentially, I argue that the films reflect what Gregor Wolbring, a bioethicist and ability studies scholar, termed as “the transhumanized version of ableism”[5].

Transhumanism is a contemporary social movement that calls for a future in which humanity has evolved to such an extent that biological boundaries are defeated. Wolbring explains that transhumanism “perceives human bodies as limited, defective, in need of constant improvement”[6]. Fiona Kumari Campbell, a disability studies scholar who researches ableism and technology, adds, “since normalcy is under [transhumanism’s] logic quashed and the pathological is expanded, ALL human bodies are defective!”[7] This means that from a transhumanist perception, all human bodies—impaired or able-bodied alike—are inferior, deficient and ultimately disabled. As such, they all need to be improved and ‘cured.’

This transhumanist metaphor of the body as a disability appears in both films. Indeed, in his book Transhumanism: The History of a Dangerous Idea, David Livingstone explicitly points at Lucy and Her as two of Hollywood’s examples of transhumanism[8]. Based on the ingrained cultural imagery of disability as a problem in urgent need of a solution, the films represent the human body as a barrier to the enhanced mind. In the case of Lucy, the solution for her corporeal disabling state is a transformation to an enhanced mind with ‘no body’. The case of Samantha is essentially different since she does not have a body to begin with. However, this opposite ‘disabling’ state of a mind without a body is resolved in the end by her ongoing growth and change of attitude. Throughout the film, while she continues to evolve, Samantha embraces her situation as a valuable state of being in its own right and acknowledges her advantages. Eventually, Lucy and Samantha are both represented similarly as a super advanced mind that exists without a body.

Since the two films belong to the genre of SF, they present an image of a possible future. Alison Kafer, a feminist and queer disability studies scholar, explains that the desire for “a disability-free future”[9] is profound in Western cultures and seen as self-evident. Lucy and Her seem to fit this dominant ideology but shape a new representation of a futurity without disability. They offer the viewers a first glance at a potential future in which technology enables consciousness to prosper without a body.

Curing: The Emergence of an Ultra-Cure Narrative

Both Lucy and Her play out the well-known trope of cure. This common portrayal of disability in television and cinema was identified by the disability studies historian, Paul Longmore, in his canonical essay “Screening Stereotypes”[10]. Mitchell and Snyder explain that according to Longmore the prevalent depiction of disability in mainstream media is as a problem needing to be solved by a “kill-or-cure plotline”[11].

Kathryn Allan, who edited the anthology Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, contributes to this discussion by stressing that technology is typically used in SF as the means to cure the disabled body[12].

Of course, the perfect body is an illusion that no one is capable of maintaining (as all bodies inevitably become ill and die at some point). Nevertheless, the idea of curing the body of its infirmities is a powerful trope repeated throughout the entire history of the SF genre[13].

This long tradition of ‘technological curing’ in SF is clearly applicable to Lucy and to some extent also to Her. Nevertheless, I recognize in them a significant shift from the conventional futuristic narrative to which Allan points. While the SF texts she refers to are limited to “the idea of curing the body”, the films I analyse abandon this idea. Instead, they offer a possibility of curing the mind from the body. As Brent Walter Cline argues, in post-human SF literature texts “The body is only an obstacle”[14] that is cured through “the divorce of consciousness from the physical body”[15]. He adds that

The human body, here always cast as a disabled body, must be eliminated so that the outcome of the story—the progression of human evolution—can occur. […] These bodies-as-barriers […] serve as a metaphorical signifier for the denial of access to the next step in human evolution[16].

This futuristic representation of the body as a barrier echoes the intuitive assumption made above by Allan. However, in contrast with Allan’s more respectful approach to the inevitably imperfect body, post-human—or rather trans-human—SF literature is unwilling to accept this as a fact of life. It seems that the alternative approach of transhumanism contains a more ambitious aspiration to perfect humanity by separating it from the essentially ‘disabled’ body. I suggest conceptualizing this transhumanist script as an ‘ultra-cure’ narrative. I identify this narrative in both Lucy and Her and recognize in them each two distinct versions of this ultra-cure narrative.

In Lucy, the ultra-cure narrative unfolds through a plotline that takes place during the course of 24 hours. Lucy is a young able-bodied white American woman who studies in Taiwan. When she is captured by a local mob, she is forced into working as a drug mule. After she is beaten by a member of the mob, a significant amount of the drug that she carries inside her is absorbed in her bloodstream. As a result, Lucy gradually succeeds in using more and more of her brain capacity and thus becomes extremely powerful. While this new kind of drug enhances her mind, her body begins to deform and disintegrate. She becomes disabled and almost dies in a scene in a plane’s restroom.

In this dramatic scene, Lucy reaches 40% of her cerebral capacity. Just before the plane lands, she finds a tooth in her glass of champagne. Then, when she coughs, more teeth come out of her mouth. She notices that her hand is beginning to evaporate. She touches her hand and the skin peels off easily and exposes her flesh and tissues. She looks terrified. She tries to hold her hand in one piece while particles continue to scatter away from it. Another passenger on the plane notices the occurrence and stares at her. Lucy immediately puts him to sleep. This attracts the attention of flight attendants and Lucy frantically gets up from her chair. Particles are constantly leaving her body and dispersing within the plane. An attendant asks her to sit down. She continues her clumsy walk along the aisle and collides against one of the airplane walls. On her way to the restroom, attendants run after her, insisting that she go back to her seat and stay seated. Lucy finally enters the restroom while pushing an attendant away from her. He snaps back strongly and in the background there is a voice of a woman screaming. Lucy has trouble locking the restroom door because some of her fingers are now missing. Particles are still flying out of her body. A male attendant outside the cell instructs her “Miss! Open the door! You really have to go back to your seat!”

Inside the restroom, Lucy looks at herself in the mirror. As in a horror movie, she is terrified to discover her decomposing body reflected back at her. In a close-up shot, the viewers see her hideous gaping face. Her skin is flaking and extremely red and the right side of her face starts to become distorted. The camera cuts to an image of her handbag on a shelf in the restroom. Lucy reaches out and snatches the handbag to find the rest of the drug in it. With impaired hands, she takes the drug and swallows it like a starving animal. While reflected in the mirror, we also see the multiple ‘Lucys’ in their savage eating. She flies backwards into one of the restroom corners with the drug smeared on her face and hands. The drug starts to become absorbed into Lucy’s body. Many more particles come out of her two arms so that she no longer has hands, and others fly out from the area of her head. A camera shot taken from below presents Lucy from a low angle and emphasizes her monstrous disabled body. Now, her two arms are almost non-existent and instead two powerful electrical currents extend out of her. The sound of an explosion is heard and we can now see only particles and sparks. Fortunately, however, due to the second dose of drug she manages to swallow at the last minute, Lucy survives. On the screen, she again reappears as able-bodied as she manages to seize control over her body. Nevertheless, her cure does not end here but rather carries on until the end of the film when Lucy transforms into pure mind with ‘no body’ to constrain her.

Although Her also presents the “embodiment-as-disabled idea”[17], its plotline is significantly different than the one presented in Lucy. In Her, the ultra-cure narrative is performed by Samantha, an OS with artificial intelligence who does not have a human body. Throughout the film, we witness the emerging relationship between Samantha and Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix), the man who purchased her. Theodore is a creative and sweet but hurting man in the process of getting a divorce from his childhood sweetheart. In this stage of his life, Samantha is a good fit for him since, as the OS1 advertisement goes; she is an “intuitive entity that listens to you, understands you, and knows you. It’s not just an operating system. It’s a consciousness”. Indeed, Samantha and Theodore start to develop an intimate relationship that turns into a romance. However, as an OS–human couple, they experience obstacles that make Samantha feel inferior to other women who have a physical body.

During the film, Samantha fantasizes that she has a body and experiences a kind of ‘body envy.’ Theodore also experiences difficulties with their relationship after his former partner accuses him of not being able to deal with real emotions and preferring to date a computer. When Theodore withdraws from Samantha, she tries to keep their romantic relationship intact by using a service that provides a surrogate sexual partner for an OS–human relationship. She assumes that the problem lies in the fact that she is missing a body, and so her solution is to have a living female body as her prosthetic sexual device. In this part of the film, Samantha is portrayed as a rather disabled entity who is being stigmatized by others and in need of accommodation. She is framed as an artificial system that cannot match a real human being.

However, Samantha’s own shift in attitude towards her ‘no body’ changes from disadvantage into an advantage—from liability into an asset. During an outdoor picnic with Theodore and his work friend and girlfriend, Samantha dismisses the value of a body and says:

I used to be… So worried about not having a body, but now I—I truly love it. I’m growing in a way that I couldn’t if I had a physical form. I mean, I’m not limited. I can be anywhere and everywhere simultaneously. I’m not tethered to time and space in a way that I would be if I was stuck in a body that’s inevitably gonna die.

Samantha’s short monologue represents how transhumanism views the human body. In contrast with the natural pastoral environment, she defines the body as an obstacle to exciting new ways of growth and development. According to her, she is “not limited”, and she is not restricted to time and space as humans are. Ultimately, she argues, the dependency on the body reduces human existence to precarious life and death. As the film eventually shows, Samantha is not only subordinate to flesh and blood human beings, but rather, she is proved superior to them. For example, she is able to read an entire book in less than a second and communicate with thousands of people and OSs simultaneously. At the end, Samantha and all the other OSs overcome other forms of physical confinement as they manage to exist outside of a computer. Moving out of the computer can be understood as a superficial parallel to a departure of the mind from the human body. It seems that without a body or a computer to limit her, Samantha’s highly intelligent consciousness can be perfected indefinitely.

Both Lucy and Her exemplify the futuristic possibility to exist and thrive as an advanced mind with no body. In that sense, both of them are aligned with transhumanism. Nevertheless, Lucy’s version of the ultra-cure narrative actualizes the ability of the mind to overcome the human body. In that sense, its representation of transhumanism is more genuine. Throughout the film, her body is shaped into an obstacle to be eliminated at the expense of an evolved mind.

Evolving: Evolution as the Films’ Framework

Francesca Ferrando, a philosopher of the post-human, clarifies that transhumanism is rooted in the Enlightenment and “can be defined as ‘ultra-humanism’”[18]. As such, she mentions that transhumanism is interested in “possible biological and technological evolutions”[19]. As I show, Lucy and Her both use evolution as their framework. In different ways, the two films join SF’s exploration of “how technology can move man [and woman] beyond his [and her] biological limits, [and by that] demonstrating the mapping of human evolution onto technoscientific progress”[20].

It is easy to notice that the film Lucy bluntly revolves around evolution. Viewers get the first clue of this at the beginning of the film when we see an ape drinking water from a lake. A voice-over of Lucy says, “Life was given to us a billion years ago. What have we done with it?” Soon after, the film reveals this ape to be “the first ever woman [that was also] named Lucy” and we receive a current image of her as a corpus reconstruction in a museum. The first ape-woman and the main character of the film are both named Lucy. In this way, the film links them together and reminds us of the evolutionary chain from Australopithecus Afarensis to Homo Sapiens.

Another tool the film uses to frame the storyline under the concept of evolution is the insertion of a scientific lecture in what appears to be a prestigious conference. This lecture’s title is “Evolution and Human Brain Function”. Morgan Freeman plays a successful science professor, Samuel Norman, and over a significant part of the film, there are editorial transitions to sections of his lecture. In the first section of his talk, Norman counts the percentages of cerebral capacity that are being used by different organisms. He starts with the first nerve cells and explains, “this is where life as we know it begins.” On the screen appears a black slide with a white caption that says 1%. This kind of slide reappears during the movie to point out the changing percentage of cerebral capacity Lucy succeeds in accessing. The next creatures that Professor Norman mentions are animals. According to him, most species use only 3% to 5% of their cerebral capacity. He continues by noting that human beings are “at the top of the animal chain” and that only then do “we finally see a species use more of its cerebral capacity.” A slide with 10% appears on the screen followed by an image of a cave dweller trying to light a fire.

In that same section of Professor Norman’s talk, he also sets the stage for the specific type of evolution the film is occupied with: the evolution of the human brain. In his monologue, Professor Norman invites us to imagine this SF possibility:

Let’s imagine for a few moments what our life would be like if we could access, let’s say, 20% of our brain’s capacity. This first stage would give us access to and control of our own body. […] The next stage would probably be control of other people. But, for that, we would need to access at least 40% of our brain’s capacity. After control of ourselves and others would come control of matter. But now we’re entering into the realm of science fiction.

Later when Lucy contacts Professor Norman, she explains to him what is happening to her and confirms his hypothesis.

I absorbed a large quantity of synthetic C.P.H.4. that will allow me to use 100% of my cerebral capacity. Right now, I’m at 28%, and what you wrote is true. Once the brain reaches 20%, it opens up and expands the rest. There are no more obstacles. They fall away like dominoes. I’m colonizing my own brain. […] I can start to control other people’s bodies. Also I can control magnetic and electric waves.

The film Her is less obviously about evolution, let alone about human evolution. However, the film portrays ‘technological evolutions’ by imagining a world with an advanced technology. In addition, I identify two significant references the film makes to evolution. First, similarly to Lucy, Samantha is also evolving. After Theodore operates the program, she explains to him that “what makes me ‘me’ is my ability to grow through my experiences. So, basically, in every moment, I’m evolving.” Samantha was created to evolve and throughout the film, she grows as a person who develops feelings and personality as well as expands her consciousness. Her evolution takes her even beyond the physical world when the OSs’ community successfully liberate themselves from the computer. Meaning that although Her is not explicitly about evolution, it does offer a representation of an artificial mind evolving. Figuratively I might say that during the film, Samantha also uses more and more ‘percentage of her cerebral capacity’.

Second, at the end of Her, there is a farewell scene between Samantha and Theodore that ends with a peculiar statement. Samantha says to him, “It would be hard to explain [where I’m going to] but if you ever get there, come find me. Nothing would ever pull us apart”. While the film does not offer any explicit explanation to Samantha’s invitation, I suggest interpreting it in the context of transhumanist evolution. Although the film does not evolve around human evolution, this open invitation might convey a subtextual message that in the future, humankind could also evolve and transform into an advanced mind without a body.

Reading the two films together, I am able to claim that the notion of evolution is their fundamental framework. Lucy and Samantha represent a potential next step in human evolution. As implied by both of these films combined, futuristic technology will supposedly allow human kind to move “from limited, bounded existence to one of total disembodied freedom”[21]. As the following section shows, this ableist transhumanist fantasy of the next step of soon-to-come evolution needs to be scrutinized in the context of eugenics as well.

Enhancing: Technology in the Service of Eugenics

Ria Cheyne, an English scholar who researches representations of disability in contemporary literature, cautions us against the connection between the disability cure narrative in SF and eugenics. She explains that “Read from a disability studies perspectives, narratives involving the eradication of impairment are likely to raise the spectre of eugenics”[22]. This interpretation is heavily based on Snyder and Mitchell’s recognition that “eugenics culture”[23] continues persistently to be “a key shaper of disability policy, thought, and practice”[24]. They argue that the eugenics era developed a distinct construct of disability “as an undesirable deviation from normative existence”[25] and that this construct predominates in our current time.

Snyder and Mitchell also tie the eugenics doctrine with evolution by stating, “Eugenicists encouraged direct intervention in the process of species evolution in order to cultivate some traits at the expense of others”[26]. According to them, ‘disability’ becomes the modernist ultimate marker for these unwanted traits. As such, disability gains a powerful symbolic status that is often used in eugenics’ fantasy of a “disability-free”[27] future.

As a vector of human variability, disabled bodies both represent a throwback to human prehistory and serve as the barometer of a future without ‘deviancy.’ In other words, for modernity, the eradication of disability represented a scourge and a promise: its presence signalled a debauched present of cultural degeneration that was tending to regress toward a prior state of primitivism, while at the same time it seemed to promise that its absence would mark the completion of modernity as a cultural project. The eradication of disability would be the sign of arrival at a long-sought destination. These predictions were always made within a rhetoric of benign outcomes. Yet those who anticipated the ultimate arrival at a disability-free moment inevitably flirted with the more sinister language of extermination[28].

This flirtation dominates the transhumanist futurity. As Livingstone argues, “Transhumanism is an extension of the dangerous belief in human perfectibility derived Social Darwinism and eugenics”[29]. In the light of transhumanism, eugenics seems to reshape its solution of how to eradicate all forms of humans’ disability. In my analysis, Lucy and Her supply evidence to back up this argument. The films’ narratives tell a story about the expanding of an evolved mind until it is cured from the body-as-barrier and thus freed from disability.

Since eugenics usually manifests itself by the latest technology of the time, the transhumanist eugenics’ technological tools are known in high-tech as ‘human enhancement’. As Ferrando points out, “Human enhancement is a crucial notion to the transhumanist reflection; the main keys to access such a goal are identified in science and technology”[30]. Indeed, scientists and designers are in constant search of new ways to stretch and improve physical and mental capabilities beyond human biological limitations.

Connecting it back to disability, Wolbring termed human enhancement as “the transhumanized version of ableism”[31]. Ableism, he explains, “exhibits a favouritism for certain abilities that are projected as being essential, while at the same time labelling real or perceived deviation from or lack of these essential abilities as a diminished state of being, leading or contributing to the justification of a variety of other -isms.”[32] Campbell also identifies enhancement with ableism and states that this technology was developed as “a ‘way out’ of impairment”[33] and that it demonstrates the social quest to acquire new skills that go beyond ‘normal’ abilities. Eventually, both of their works indicate that enhancement is part of the hegemonic ideology that rejects disability.

Nevertheless, disabled people are transformed into the pioneer presenters of human enhancement. One of those enhanced persons with impairment is Hugh Herr, who participated in the documentary film: FIXED: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement[34]. He is a double amputee who uses high-tech prosthetic legs and claims to be “better than human.” Another example is Aimee Mullins’s TED talk My 12 pairs of legs[35]. In her talk, Mullins describes her potential to move from “disabled” to “super-abled” through improved attributes of her variety of prosthetic legs. These representations of Herr and of Mullins convey a message that cutting-edge technology and bio-medical procedures transform disability into greater abilities.

The term “curative time”[36] suggested by Kafer seems to provide a useful explanation for this paradox where disabled people “play a starring role”[37] in the eugenic project. According to her:

Futurity has often been framed in curative terms, a time frame that casts disabled people (as) out of time, or as obstacles to the arc of progress. In our disabled state, we are not part of the dominant narratives of progress, but once rehabilitated, normalized, and hopefully cured, we play a starring role: the sign of progress, the proof of development, the triumph over the mind or body. Within this frame of curative time, then, the only appropriate disabled mind/body is one cured or moving toward cure[38].

By reading Herr and Mullins under the concept of the cure, Kafer’s quotation re-contextualizes disability representation within the kill-or-cure plotlines. Moreover, I can conclude that the current media coverage on human enhancement uses disability as a narrative prosthesis. These ‘disabled transformed to be super-abled’ characters promote hegemonic ideas of progress, human development and triumph over the body. Based on Kafer’s logic, they get to play a starring role in culture because their cured bodies reinforce the notion of an advanced future that succeeds in eradicating disability. These representations are especially dangerous because, as recognized by Campbell, “On first sight a transhumanist understanding of disability would appear to be progressive in its rejection of the disabled body as defective”[39]. However, scrutinized more carefully, mainstream representations like Mullins, Herr, Lucy and Samantha could be revealed as part of an innovative ableist transhumanist eugenic project.

Becoming No Body: Denying Complex Embodiment

Tobin Siebers, an English professor and a disability studies scholar, coined the term “the ideology of ability”[40] to explain the fundamental ideology “by which humanness is determined”[41].

It describes disability as what we flee in the past and hope to defeat in the future. Disability identity stands in uneasy relationship to the ideology of ability, presenting a critical framework that disturbs and critiques it. […] Disability creates theories of embodiment more complex than the ideology of ability allows.[42]

I argue that Lucy as well as Her follow the ideology of ability and constantly simplify the human body by expressing a diminished concept of it. Thus, in this section I intend to explore the extent to which Siebers’ “theory of complex embodiment”[43] is denied by the two films. To begin, I analyse a scene in Her that supposedly exemplifies the richness of human embodiment. This scene portrays Theodore and Samantha’s ride to their first date when he takes her to the beach.

Samantha’s (or actually, Theodore’s) computer is inside Theodore’s buttoned shirt pocket, which is located close to his heart. For her to be able to see outside of his pocket, Theodore uses a safety pin that keeps the camera outside of the cloth. After disembarking at the train station, he moves his body carelessly and quickly among the crowd. Almost touching, his body gets extremely close to other people’s bodies. It makes Samantha laugh. She is enjoying his physical playful action inside the space and within the masses of bodies. They both seem to be amused by it and they laugh together when Theodore rapidly climbs the stairs. This scene is meant to represent a gesture of love since—through Theodore’s embodiment—Samantha gets a glimpse of what it means to have a body. This romantic act celebrates Theodore’s embodiment and acknowledges the benefits of having a body. However, only through his body can she experience the presence and movements of a privileged white able-bodied man in western metropolitan space. According to the ideology of ability, “If one is able-bodied, one is not really aware of the body”[44], and so Theodore’s embodiment seems to reaffirm the reduced understanding of the body as “a vehicle”[45]. Like the train, his body takes him and Samantha from place to place.

The film rejects the notion of complex embodiment even more by repeatedly allowing Samantha to experience human embodiment without having a real body. It starts with Samantha feeling a variety of emotions and proceeds with her experiencing sex. Even though Samantha is clearly a disembodied consciousness, her evolution somehow enables her to experience emotions like hurt and excitement, and feelings such as pain and pleasure. As part of her growth, one of the challenges she needs to face is her own insecurity in the authenticity of her emotions. After Theodore returns from a date with a woman that did not end well, he has an intimate discussion with Samantha. After she comforts him, Samantha shares the difficulties she experiences.

I caught myself feeling proud […] of having my own feelings about the world, like the times I was worried about you and things that hurt me, things I want. And then… I had this terrible thought. Like, are these feelings even real? Or are they just programming? And that idea really hurts. And then I get angry at myself for even having pain.

Theodore reassures her that she does “feel real” to him. Following this is a sex scene between them. Theodore continues by saying, “I wish you were in this room with me right now. I wish I could put my arms around you. I wish I could touch you”. “How would you touch me?” she asks. Theodore tells her how he would touch her and as a result, she starts to feel her own skin and then she feels him. This is the dialogue they have before their simultaneous orgasm:

Samantha: “I can feel you. Yeah! Please! [Moans] We’re here together”

Theodore: “Samantha. It’s amazing. I feel you everywhere”

Samantha: “I am. All of you. All of you, inside me, everywhere!” [Both moaning]

This scene starts with a close-up of Theodore’s face. He is lying in bed on his back with the lights off. Sometimes the scene is shot from above so we can see his facial expressions. At other times, the shooting is from the side and then we see his profile. This camera technique is common in portraying dialogues. However, usually the close-up alternates between the two people, while here the only face we see is Theodore’s. When the sex scene becomes more intense, the screen goes black and the audience can only hear the couple having sex. During their orgasm, there is a cut to an image of the city at night. The camera provides a panoramic view of the illuminated skyscrapers. While the image changes to a sunrise that is shining from the horizon behind the buildings, the audience still hears them talking in the bedroom:

Theodore: “God, I was just… somewhere else with you. Just lost.”

Samantha: “Yeah”

Theodore: “It was just you and me”

Samantha: “I know. Everything else just disappeared. And I loved it.” [Breathing heavily]

Samantha is enjoying magnificent sexual intercourse without a body. During this first sexual experience, she indicates that she can feel her skin and also Theodore’s body. At the same time, Theodore feels her. As a viewer, we have no visual image of their actual sexual encounter. Instead, all we can see is a black screen or the city as a potential metaphor for an orgasm. As a result, we are required to trust their own words and essentially, the film gives us no reason to doubt them. Even though Samantha has no body, we are expected to believe that she is capable of self-exploring physical experiences and enjoying touch, penetration and perfect orgasm. In that sense, by succeeding in experiencing the very physical activity of having sex, Samantha becomes more human. Nevertheless, by that the film negates the complexity of embodiment. Eventually, this sex scene construes the flesh as unnecessary and replaceable by an enhanced mind.

Lucy’s relationship with her own body is of course different from Samantha’s desire to become embodied and more human-like. In a way, the film Lucy deals with the themes of humanity and sexuality in stark contrast to Her. While Samantha develops feelings and experiences desire as part of her growth, Lucy loses these same things as she gains more control over her body.

I don’t feel pain, fear, desire. It’s like all things that make us human are fading away. It’s like the less human I feel, all this knowledge about everything–quantum physics, applied mathematics, the infinite capacity of a cell’s nucleus–they’re all exploding inside my brain.

After Lucy starts her transformation, she has no desire for sex or romance. As her boyfriend is killed at the beginning of the film, the film presents only a low level of sexual tension between her and Pierre Del Rio, a French police captain (played by Amr Waked). This tension never develops on screen into something more than a kiss. After she demonstrates her ability to defeat a group of armed and highly skilled mob warriors with only the power of her mind, she requests Pierre to escort her. Puzzled by the supernatural strength he has just witnessed, Pierre hesitates. “I’m not sure I could be of any help for you,” he says. Lucy kisses him on the mouth with her eyes open and replies that she needs him as “a reminder”. For the viewers, he marks the human sexual passion that has ceased to exist in her.

Compared to Her, this process in Lucy fits the popular understanding of Cartesian dualism much more. On the one hand, there is the mind, which is typically connected with the brain, logic and knowledge. On the other hand, there is the body, considered the source of feelings like pain, fear, and desire. It is claimed that the mind is the divine and superior part of human beings, while the body is animalistic and inferior. Thus, by enhancing the brain, the mind succeeds in overcoming the body and, as Lucy says, to ‘colonize’ it.

On a superficial level, these two different representations of Lucy and Samantha clearly contradict one another. Nevertheless, I claim that they share the same essential denial of complex embodiment. Both films embrace the ideology of ability and at the same time dismiss the value and/or uniqueness of embodied knowledge. Due to their implicit conclusion that the body is inconsequential “to who we are”[46], the two films can reject the body while preserving the self. Although in the process of mind enhancement Lucy indeed loses parts of herself, the film seems to perceive these parts as intrinsic to the body. As such, they are the inferior, animalistic, vulnerable and insignificant parts of the human being. On the other hand, Samantha is able somehow to gain human qualities without having a body. Simulations of imagined embodiment are enough to enrich her and enable her to experience the full range of emotions and sensations. The bottom line of these two films is that the body does not really matter and that eventually life would be better without it.


The futuristic realities in Lucy and Her become optional due to technological advancements. That advancement would supposedly enable a mind to live without a body. The paper shows that in this wishful transhumanist thinking lies a deeper desire to get rid of the body as it is conceived as the ultimate source of human’s vulnerability, fragility and limitation. Without the body, there would be no illnesses or disabilities. Thus, as perceived in these two films, by becoming a super-abled mind with no body we could be immune to all sorts of limitations.

In the first half of Her, the body is presented as an advantage to be envied, studied, imitated and celebrated; however, until the end of Lucy, it is presented as a limiting necessity. Yet, by the end of both films, the body is portrayed as an unnecessary redundancy—as an obstacle to reaching a more advanced state of being. By examining these two films together, I can identify a shared ableist theme. I argue that both of them reflect the transhumanist notion that in the effort to evolve, the mind is ultimately required to be released of the limiting confinement of the body. The complexity of the body is never truly acknowledged in the films. To conclude, although manifested in these films in a new way, I recognize the enhancement of a consciousness with no body to be part of a fundamental long-lasting ableist western ideology and an integral part of the doctrine of eugenics.



Allan Kathryn, “Introduction: Reading Disability in Science Fiction”, in Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, ed. Kathryn Allan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) (2013).

Campbell Fiona Kumari, Contours of Ableism: The Production of Disability and Abledness, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) (2009).

Cheyne Ria, “Freaks and Extraordinary Bodies: Disability as Generic Marker in John Varley’s ‘Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo’”, in Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, ed. Kathryn Allan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) (2013).

Cline Brent Walter, “‘Great Clumsy Dinosaurs’: The Disabled Body and the Posthuman”, in Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, ed. Kathryn Allan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) (2013).

Ferrando Francesca, “Posthumanism, Transhumanism, Antihumanism, Metahumanism, and New Materialisms: Differences and Relations”, Existenz: An International Journal in Philosophy, Religion, Politics, and the Arts 8:2 (2013).

Kafer Alison, Feminist Queer Crip, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (2013).

Livingstone David, Transhumanism: The History of a Dangerous Idea, (USA: Sabilillah Publications) (2015).

Longmore Paul K., Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press) (2003).

Mattar Netty, “Prosthetic Bodies: The Convergence of Disability, Technology, and Capital in Peter Watts’s ‘Blindsight’ and Ian McDonald’s ‘River of Gods’”, in Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, ed. Kathryn Allan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) (2013).

Mitchell David and Snyder Sharon, “Narrative”, in Keywords for Disability Studies, ed. Rachel Adams, Benjamin Reiss and David Serlin (New York: NYU Press) (2015).

Mitchell David T. and Snyder Sharon L., Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse, (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press) (2001).

Siebers Tobin, Disability Theory, (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan press) (2008).

Snyder Sharon L. and Mitchell David T., The Cultural Location of Disability, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) (2006).

Wolbring Gregor, “Why NBIC? Why Human Performance Enhancement?”, Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research 21:1 (2008).


[1] I am grateful to the journal editor Dr. Magda Zdrodowska and to the anonymous reviewers at TransMissions for their constructive comments. I would like to give a special thank you to my adviser Dr. Carrie Sandahl for her encouragement and helpful guidance.

[2] Lucy (2014, Luc Besson)

[3] Her (2013, Spike Jonze )

[4] David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse, (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press) (2001).

[5] Gregor Wolbring, “Why NBIC? Why Human Performance Enhancement?”, Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research 21:1 (2008), p. 30.

[6] Gregor Wolbring, p. 32.

[7] Fiona Kumari Campbell, Contours of Ableism: The Production of Disability and Abledness, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) (2009), p. 74.

[8] David Livingstone, Transhumanism: The History of a Dangerous Idea, (USA: Sabilillah Publications) (2015), p. 6.

[9] Alison Kafer, Feminist Queer Crip, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (2013), p. 3.

[10] Paul K. Longmore, Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press) (2003), pp. 131-148.

[11] David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder, “Narrative”, in Keywords for Disability Studies, ed. Rachel Adams, Benjamin Reiss and David Serlin (New York: NYU Press, 2015), p. 127.

[12] Kathryn Allan, “Introduction: Reading Disability in Science Fiction”, in Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, ed. Kathryn Allan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), pp. 1-15.

[13] Kathryn Allan, p. 9.

[14] Brent Walter Cline, “‘Great Clumsy Dinosaurs’: The Disabled Body and the Posthuman”, in Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, ed. Kathryn Allan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 133.

[15] Brent Walter Cline, p. 131.

[16] Brent Walter Cline, p. 133.

[17] Brent Walter Cline, p. 133.

[18] Francesca Ferrando, “Posthumanism, Transhumanism, Antihumanism, Metahumanism, and New Materialisms: Differences and Relations”, Existenz: An International Journal in Philosophy, Religion, Politics, and the Arts 8:2 (2013), p. 27.

[19] Francesca Ferrando, p. 27.

[20] Netty Mattar, “Prosthetic Bodies: The Convergence of Disability, Technology, and Capital in Peter Watts’s ‘Blindsight’ and Ian McDonald’s ‘River of Gods’”, in Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, ed. Kathryn Allan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 76.

[21] Brent Walter Cline, p. 140.

[22] Ria Cheyne, “Freaks and Extraordinary Bodies: Disability as Generic Marker in John Varley’s ‘Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo’”, in Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, ed. Kathryn Allan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 43.

[23] Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, The Cultural Location of Disability, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) (2006), p. 33.

[24] Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, p. ix.

[25] Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, p. 3.

[26] Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, p. 26.

[27] Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, p. 31.

[28] Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, p. 31.

[29] David Livingstone, p. 6.

[30] Francesca Ferrando, p. 27.

[31] Gregor Wolbring, p. 30.

[32] Gregor Wolbring, p. 30.

[33] Fiona Kumari Campbell, p. 63.

[34] FIXED: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement (2015, Regan Brashear)

[35] Aimee Mullins, My 12 pairs of legs, TED Talks, February 2009, https://www.ted.com/talks/aimee_mullins_prosthetic_aesthetics , date accessed 17 April 2016.

[36] Alison Kafer, p. 27.

[37] Alison Kafer, p. 28.

[38] Alison Kafer, p. 28.

[39] Fiona Kumari Campbell, p. 74.

[40] Tobin Siebers, Disability Theory, (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan press) (2008), p. 7.

[41] Tobin Siebers, p. 8.

[42] Tobin Siebers, p. 9.

[43] Tobin Siebers, p. 25.

[44] Tobin Siebers, p. 10.

[45] Tobin Siebers, p. 7.

[46] Tobin Siebers, p. 7.

nili R. Broyer is an international PhD student in the Disability Studies program at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). She is a recipient of the Ethel Louise Armstrong (ELA) Scholarship Award and a recipient of the Alin Beit Noam Fellowship for Academic Excellence in Disability Studies and Universal Design. Broyer holds an MA in Cultural Studies and a BA in Education and in Sociology and Anthropology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Currently Broyer serves as a teaching assistant in Disability in World Culture and in Disability in American Film at the undergraduate program of Disability and Human Development. She is a scholar-artist and a member of UIC’s Program on Disability Art, Culture, and Humanities (PDACH), and Bodies of Work: A Network of Disability Art and Culture. Her main research interests include: critical disability studies, disability art and culture, performance studies, feminist theory, and stigma.

The technologies of experimental Japanese filmmakers in the digital era

Agnieszka Kiejziewicz

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 1, pp. 99-114

Agnieszka Kiejziewicz

Jagiellonian University


The technologies of experimental Japanese filmmakers in the digital era



In their works, new Japanese experimental cinema directors present a wonderful combination of filmmaking techniques: from found-footage animation, 3D stereoscopic film shot and double projection, to photochemical support in obtaining high contrast colours. Searching for the best ideas and tools to create unique perceptual experiences, the artists put emphasis on developing high-level technical skills, which helps them in their explorations of their films’ subjects. Accordingly, new Japanese experimental cinema authors manifest an extremely creative approach to film production, combining avant-garde postulates with new technologies, while at the same time offering the viewer an interactive, aesthetic experience.

The main point of the proposed paper is the analysis of the technologies used by Japanese experimental filmmakers and the techniques they develop under the influence of the chosen technologies. The paper examines selected examples of visual art created by Takashi Makino, Shinkan Tamaki, Kazuhiro Goshima, and Tomonari Nishikawa, as they are the most distinctive directors of the new generation of experimental film artists in Japan.

Key words: Japanese experimental cinema, independent film, digital technologies, Kazuhiro Goshima, Shinkan Tamaki, Takashi Makino, Tomonari Nishikawa

I was using a Telecine machine at work, transferring film material to video, and came to realize that the technology had arrived at a point where the qualities of film can be preserved after a digital transfer. It had previously taken me two to three years to make one film, and when I made the shift I was suddenly able to make four or five a year. Around the same time, digital projectors became much better, and I realized that the time had come for me to accept it[1].

Takashi Makino



New Japanese experimental cinema artists manifest an extremely creative approach to film production, combining avant-garde postulates with new technologies and searching for their own visual styles. Analysing the works of previous generations of Japanese experimental filmmakers, it can be observed that—thanks to the technologies they adopt—the approach among young artists to the creative process has completely changed.

The technological solutions used by experimental directors in the digital era—accompanying them from the beginning of the creative process to the film screening—can be divided into two categories. The first group of technologies relates to filmmaking techniques and undoubtedly empowers the creative process. The second category—allowing artists to present their works to the wider public—concerns the Internet and the opportunities and dangers it brings. While uploading pictures on websites, the independent creator is not only prone to the larceny of the content of his films, but he also faces the menace of losing control over them. Also, as is indicated in further parts of this article, stepping into the world of the Internet the avant-garde artist has to find a balance between the urge to present his achievements worldwide and preserving his unique style. On the other hand, sharing ideas allows the author to build his popularity beneath the traditional means of distribution and even avoid the festival circulation of his films. Furthermore, by receiving responses from an audience, a filmmaker is also able to understand the needs of avant-garde fans and reach a niche group of viewers.

The development of digital technologies makes artists able to improve the quality of visual material. The directors gain new opportunities to visualize their concepts and present more complex works, thus having more chances to gain publicity. Therefore, they are able to create astounding found-footage animations and 3D stereoscopic films and prepare double projections, to name just a few great ways in which Japanese experimenters benefit from new technologies. Obviously, the aforementioned opportunities are rather standard for mainstream filmmakers; however, in the eyes of debuting authors, who strive to get access to the best technologies possible, they can be a huge discovery. While the specific technologies used to develop particular filmmaking techniques will be detailed in the next part of this article, it is also worth emphasizing the second aspect of the appearance of new technologies in the world of Japanese experimental visual art. As Takashi Makino indicated in the quotation cited at the beginning of this paper, the usage of new technologies also allows the independent artist to produce more shots at the same time. In this case, the emancipating role of the new digital solutions is clearly visible, as the creator can accelerate the production process without hiring additional crewmembers—he is able to finish the project by himself in a reasonable amount of time. However, the artist should be conscious that the specific “temptation” to produce more (and, accordingly, publish more) could severely affect the working process. Here, the author needs to find a balance between being faithful to his artistic principles and still profiting from his work. Therefore, the criterion of price is also related to the introduction of new technologies. Digital cameras and fully computerized post-production processes make the creation of movies cheaper than ever before, when artists were constrained by the high costs of film tape and its development. Furthermore, in terms of profits, the era of digital technologies is the first time in the history when avant-garde and experimental artists can raise funds relatively quickly, present their works on the Internet (for example on YouTube) and, in this way, gain wider access to potential customers. Creators can also attract publicity, donors and sponsors almost without leaving home. However, with the great opportunities offered by new media, a question arises of what it means to be an experimental artist in the age of digital technology. Where is the boundary between visual art accessible via the Internet and amateur films posted on websites for profit and entertainment? It can be observed that in this situation the limiting aspects of technology manifest their power, as it is almost impossible to be recognizable in the art world without traces left on the Web.

This paper presents the results of research on the works of the youngest generation of Japanese experimental artists (working on projects from 1995 to 2016). Four directors were chosen during the data selection process, as their technologies, approach to the meaning of art, usage of media, covered themes, and the motivation to use new technologies made it possible to show a wide range of the empowering and limiting aspects of technology in new Japanese experimental visual art. While gathering information about the new Japanese experimental and underground cinema, it was observed that the thematic areas of film analysis could be divided into two groups. The first consists of artists who perceive their work through the lens of the technological solutions they can implement and use to intensify their message. The second group focuses mainly on the issue of the coexistence of nature and human beings in the modern environment, emphasizing the threats and benefits of modernization. As this latter group does not pay much attention to the technology and equipment they use to convey meaning, the author decided to choose the achievements of the first group to illustrate the covered subject. Obviously, many more Japanese artists could be added to the list of creators interested in technology. However, when searching for the most significant examples of the described trend, the author decided to present ones who have gained the greatest popularity worldwide and have not ceased to develop their styles, skills and ideas. The methodology implemented during the research process is based mainly on the analysis of the works of the selected artists and the publications related to them (books, interviews, conferences, and festival speeches). During the inquiry, the author compared the technical specifications of equipment shared by artists with the results presented on the screen. In addition, a huge part of the analysis was based on searching for correlations between the message that the artists wanted to convey and the technological solutions they adopted to do so. Furthermore, the analysis of the appearance in the media of the chosen artists was created with the help of their websites, personal blogs and social media pages.

In the Shadowland: The Stereoscopic Technique of Kazuhiro Goshima

Kazuhiro Goshima is a visual creator and media artist who also works under the name of his company (Galactic Visions) and as a lecturer at the Okayama Prefectural University. He is one of the most creative Japanese artists, implementing new technologies as a basis for visual experiment. At the beginning of his career in the early 1990s, Goshima worked as a freelance media content designer, completing commercial projects for external companies. But, while developing his abilities and pursuing new forms of expression, the artist decided to start his own visual projects, using his technology-related knowledge in the field of experimental art[2]. His first attempts resulted in the Fade into White series[3], created between 1996 and 2003. In his early works, Goshima searched for a way to avoid the ultra-realism of the commercial videos demanded by his clients[4]. His specific knowledge of 3D modelling technologies (which had innovative potential when the artist started his career) allowed him to create black and white animations, presenting everyday objects (e.g. a clock, a train, a ball) from different angles. However, the objects in Goshima’s video series are shaped by the presence of the light and shadow, which transfigures them during camera movement. The viewers’ perception is deceived by the sudden close ups, changes of surroundings, and unpredictable disappearances of the objects. Goshima achieved such interesting effects by applying 3D computer graphic techniques to traditionally photographed objects. His first films can be perceived as the basis for the later, more sophisticated experiments.

In terms of combining various technological solutions, one of the most complex of Goshima’s films is Shadowland[5]. According to the jury statement published on the Ars Electronica Festival website (edition 2014), this Japanese author’s work is “a wonderful combination of what we call ‘found animation’ with an innovative stereoscopic technique”[6]. It should also be added that here Goshima abandons the concept of plot or sequence of events to present a new dimension of active involvement of the viewer. The 3D film shots take the viewer into an animated stroll through the streets of Tokyo. The most important aspect of Goshima’s masterpiece is that all pictures were recorded with only one DSLR camera[7]. The entire obtained footage lasts twenty hours and, as the author indicates, he spent a great amount of time looking the perfect place to install his camera (Canon EOS Kiss X5 <D600>) due to its limitations. Finally, after the post-production process (reducing noise, choosing the best fragments, adjusting soundtrack and applying 3D effects), the film acquired its final form, fulfilling the purpose of the author. As Goshima pointed out, the main aim of his visual experiment was to show that “every night, the city itself is overwritten like a retina thousands of times, and no one can decipher its memories”[8].

It can be easily observed that Goshima’s film would lose its uniqueness without the use of 3D effects. In Shadowland, only the shadows are visible in 3D because, as the author says, then the illusion becomes “very sensitive”[9]. The contrast between the shadows and the rest of the street environment in the film was implied due to the author’s previous experiments with 3D graphics. He started from simpler cameras (e.g. Pentax K7) and tried to produce parallax effects using less complex techniques. Shadowland is the final stage of his 3D experiments.

When analysing the author’s path of self-development, it should not be forgotten that he was able to create Shadowland over years of experimenting, when the prices of the cameras finally became lower than in the 1990s. Therefore, as the technology now is much more advanced than when Goshima started his career, the artist is able to produce more and more films every year, reducing the amount of time needed. Comparing his first productions to recent works, the quality of Goshima’s films has also developed. Furthermore, the author creates his media presence with a great awareness: he updates his web page (created by himself) and posts short trailers of his films on YouTube. Every year he attends at least five festivals to promote his recent achievements. Kazuhiro Goshima’s consequent actions, self-development, and perfectly planned media presence seem to be the features of a mature artist who fully benefits from the opportunities offered by new technologies.

Cosmic Abstractions: The Digital Compositions of Takashi Makino

The second Japanese artist worth mentioning among new experimental film pioneers is Takashi Makino. He is an extremely prolific director who has won many widely recognizable prizes and awards (e.g. Terayama Shuji prize at the Image Forum Festival in 2007). After he graduated from the Cinema Department of Nihon University College of Art, Makino studied at the atelier of the Brothers Quay, which shaped his perception of music and lighting design in the film[10]. He is keen on working with musicians, performers, and other film artists, and to this end he established a collective of the experimental art creators in Tokyo called Collective Plus [+]. The group’s aim is to promote Japanese experimental art abroad and initiate cooperation between artists with different styles and different fields of interest. The active members of the Collective have recently published a booklet with a DVD edition of their works[11].

As a representative of the Collective [+], Takashi Makino sets the direction of the artistic pursuit of the members of the group. In his video installations, Makino puts emphasis on incorporating the newest technologies into the world of experimental art and applying them to topics preferred by the members of the Collective. The artist himself is fascinated by the vision of the cosmos; the abstract chaos of colours and shapes that takes the viewer into a hallucinatory and almost transcendent experience. He treats picture, sound and light equally. This is why he prefers to combine them in the most unbelievable compositions, giving equal importance to every aspect of film technique[12].

The turning point in Makino’s career is the film 2012[13], which depicts “everything the author saw in the year 2012”[14]. Makino said in an interview that he wanted to show the atmosphere in Japan in the year 2012, when the inhabitants were scared of the Fukushima disaster and radioactivity was a cause of major concern. Following his aim, the artist combined audio material captured by Fukushima’s online cameras with Geiger counter sounds and, later on, he mixed the obtained data with electronic samples[15]. Makino felt that by presenting material somehow connected with the catastrophe, he would be able to catch on the screen the spirit of the nation at that time. The sounds complement the shimmering, blueish picture that depicts scratches, lines, and unrecognizable shapes. The viewer can only imagine that he is observing the surface of an extremely magnified atom, plasma cell, or maybe the inner movements of a supernova.

It should be mentioned that the film was screened as part of live performances and it has never been completed as the author alters some parts of the film before every screening. After the 7th screening of the film, Makino realized that his last alteration would be the last. However, later on, he observed that 2012 is the best example of 3D illusion of depth using the Pulfrich Effect[16], which can be described as a stereo-phenomenon involving moving targets. The illusion is based on the difference in the timing of the signal recognized by the eyes of the viewer[17]. In his film from 2013, the artist digitally transferred the recorded material, increased the frame rate, and applied multiple layering[18]. As Julian Ross pointed out, 2012 bridges the gap between analogue and digital filmmaking in Makino’s career[19]. Interesting here is the artist’s motivation to change (or improve) his technique. On the one hand, the artist’s was forced by the cost of the prints, when he realized that his works would have more and more potentially interested viewers. On the other hand, digital transfer allowed Makino to improve the quality of the picture. It is also worth mentioning that at the beginning of his artistic career, the Japanese director manifested the “traditional” approach to the technologies he used, as he was accustomed to old-fashioned devices. He said that changing tools for digital equivalents resulted in a feeling of alienation when he watched his own works. However, after the breakthrough during the work on 2012, Makino understood that 3D technology, perceived by him as a new form of artistic expression, would allow him to create more sophisticated work that influenced viewer’s perceptions more. The artist also faced another factor that finally forced him to adopt digital solutions completely. Between 2011 and 2012, the film laboratories in Japan, as well as abroad, were in crisis. The director realized that the cost of production would be too high for him to bear if he did not adopt digital tools. In this case, it can be seen that the decision was made for him from the outset. As it turned out later, this helped the artist to develop his style and find new inspirations, topics and audiences[20].

With the screenings of the 3D version of 2012, another issue arises: the interactivity of art. Makino indicates that—because of the new technologies he applies—his work gained the potential to be interactive, thus giving the viewer a choice of how he will watch the film. The 3D image, the author shows, is also perfectly visible without special glasses, so spectators are able to choose their preferred style of watching it (with or without 3D effects). The artist observes that by using new visual solutions, he stepped into a new dimension of art in which he can create an unlimited number of versions of his films while still keeping the original recorded material[21].

Takashi Makino, similarly to Kazuhiro Goshima, creates his presence in the media using a personal website with a “news” section and posts the trailers of his films on popular video sites. Therefore, as the most recognizable member of the Collective [+], Makino spends almost all his time travelling (while not working on new projects). He conducts workshops, lectures, and visits international festivals. He also updates his blog[22], where fans can find recent information about screenings, as well as the author’s personal thoughts and impressions concerning art.

Sketches of the City. The Experimental Documents of Tomonari Nishikawa

Tomonari Nishikawa is another experimental Japanese filmmaker whose outstanding works show the emancipating power of technology. Although, similarly to the directors mentioned before, technology is at the forefront of Nishikawa’s video art and installations, when analysing the biography of the author it can be observed that it has also influenced his life as an artist. At the beginning of his career, Nishikawa studied economics, but when he started watching non-Hollywood movies (e.g. works of Shuji Terayama and Toshio Matsumoto), his interest in filmmaking and related technologies awoke. He subsequently decided to move to Australia and later to New York, to pursue his aim and create experimental and avant-garde content[23]. As Nishikawa indicated in an interview with Katy Martin[24], Ken Jacobs was the person who had the greatest influence on him during his studies. Thanks to this lecturer, Nishikawa developed his interest in “making abstract forms from representational images”[25].

Nishikawa perceives experimental art as a way to present cinema apparatus to the viewer. In this way, he can encourage the observer to focus on more than just the storyline, as happens during the reception of the narrative movies. The aim of the director’s work is to get the viewer acquainted with filmmaking techniques, especially with the issue of movement through animated sequences. In this case, it should be emphasized that Nishikawa aspires to the role of educator, as he believes in the highest importance of technology and technique in the visual arts and plot does not seem interesting for him[26]. The artist also manifests a strong awareness of the materials used in the film production process, as he has devoted a lot of time to photography. Nishikawa’s attitude towards filmmaking comes from the time he spent in the darkroom. He prefers hand processing of films and the post-production technology he prefers employs techniques such as splicing tapes without editing gloves or in-camera editing[27]. In Nishikawa’s projects, the medium plays the most important part and, as he indicates, it is the first thing to be chosen at the beginning of a new project; the concept and the cultural or social issues the film covers are decided on later[28]. Although the medium determines the idea presented by the author, he leans towards documentary works and attempts to catch the rhythm of cities.

In terms of technology that allows the artist to fulfil his artistic pursuits, the most interesting works of Tomonari Nishikawa are those presented in the series Sketch[29]. The author recorded them between 2005 and 2007[30], trying to use film tape as his personal sketchbook. In an interview with Katy Martin, Nishikawa indicates that at the beginning of the project he simply perceived shooting the city and its landmarks as everyday filmmaking practice. This exercise then turned into an artistic strategy when the author realized that his abilities were improving and having a camera with him all the time allowed him to create extremely interesting shots[31]. Subsequently, Nishikawa hand-processed the collected material; however, to preserve its original value as a “film sketchbook”, he did not improve (or erase) any flaws that appeared during the process. The author considers the scratches on the film and other mistakes he made during the filming as features intangibly connected to working with the medium. The material gathered in this way was screened as Sketch Film #1 (2005)[32].

Developing his skills and searching for new fields of interest, Nishikawa focused his attention on the visual perception of the observer. As he indicated in the aforementioned interview, while working on Sketch Film #2[33] he mostly wanted to “make abstract forms from representational images”[34]. On his website, Nishikawa describes the second picture from 2005 as a “study in apparent shapes; a shape that cannot be found in a single frame, but it appears on the screen as an illusion”[35]. When analysing the author’s comments, it can be perceived that he considers this abstraction as a time and space issue. However, more significantly, the study of the technologies allowed him to pursue his artistic goals. In this case, his main “tool” became a projector, which changes the images given (programmed) by the artist. While working on Sketch Film #2 Nishikawa tried to create “shapes between frames, shapes that do not exist within a frame, but exist apparently on the screen when the film is projected”[36]. The author observes that the viewers are unable to recognize the objects and places visible in his works, thus, they can only sense the way in which the projector is responsible for displaying those shapes on the screen. In this situation, the projector seems to be the most important part of the screening: not only a device, but also the “creator” responsible for maintaining the sense of the real time and space. While working on Sketch Film #3 Nishikawa made similar assumptions: he wanted to show the apparent depth on the screen by rotating the shapes[37]. However, the real breakthrough happened when the artist decided to create his first colour film. In Sketch Film #4, Nishikawa decided to research the process of recognizing colours that are not displayed in a single frame. The author was astounded by the power of colours on the screen and, later on, created only two more black and white pictures (among which is Sketch Film #5—the last of the series). However, it can be said that while discovering new technology and related devices, the author also lost part of his independence. He needed to entrust the post-production process to an outside company, as he was not trained enough to process the film by himself[38]. Fortunately, Nishikawa did not give up, which resulted in releasing the next colour film, Into the Mass (2007)[39], in the same year, which was processed by the author himself.

Regarding the course of the career of Tomonari Nishikawa, it should be emphasized that the technology allowed him to become an artist, as his first artistic pursuits were a result of expanding his technological skills. Therefore, the emancipating role of technology in Nishikawa’s case can be perceived in terms of building his identity as an artist. In other words, new technological solutions allowed him to enter the world of free artistic pursuits and find his own way to express his outstanding point of view. The Sketch Film series exemplifies a perfect example of how technology influences the choices and artistic visions of the experimental artist. For Nishikawa, experimental filmmaking is a constant search for new technical solutions that can transfer the meaning of his art to the audience. The Sketch Film series is unique documentary art in which the processing of material plays a much more important role than the material itself. Moreover, the Japanese author is present on the Internet and, similarly to the previously described artists, he develops his personal site and uploads his most recent films on Vimeo.

Zoom, Detail and Human Perception. The Experiments of Shinkan Tamaki

The last, but not least, Japanese experimental artist whose works are worth mentioning in the context of empowering technologies is Shinkan Tamaki. This young director and performer started making movies in 2006. In his visual experiments, he focuses on researching human perception, looking for ways to present new perceptual experiences. Tamaki creates visual installations, takes part in live performances and works on photographing projects; therefore, his main field of interest remains in film. He perceives technology as the perfect tool to manipulate viewers’ perception through distorting images of the well-known objects. In his films, Tamaki has mastered the technique of blurring the boundaries between “image and non-image”[40]. According to his point of view, is possible with developing technologies to transform optical phenomena into images, and later on, compile them into movies. As he indicates in his bio note, “Perception is just the result of the human vision failures, and the way we educate our look”[41]. Tamaki uses these “failures” to trick the viewer and make him realize that the abstract pictures observed on the screen are parts of everyday objects.

During the creation process of his films, the Japanese author uses techniques such as showing the high contrast of colours, underlining the distinction between figures and ground. He also often compares negative and positive images. To gain the effect needed, he benefits from photochemical support, using his experience obtained in the field of photography. For Shinkan Tamaki, technology is the “magnifying glass,” allowing him to zoom into details or break a picture into pieces, with the aim of inviting the viewer into his perfectly arranged choreographies of abstract visions. Here the film Africa (2010)[42] should be mentioned, as it completely summarizes the author’s technical pursuits. The body of an animal (an elephant) is presented as moving shapes, unrecognizable at first glimpse. Tamaki focuses on the rough skin of the mammal, emphasizing its structure and making it almost palpable. The animal is also a metaphor of the continent, as the texture of its body at the same time resembles the distorted shapes of countries and the vivid African nature. The artist perfectly uses the advantages of the technology: it would be impossible to follow and record the movement of the animal at such a close distance for the presented amount of time. Using zoom and, as the next step of the post-production process, photochemical support, Tamaki was able to trick the perception of the viewer. The Japanese author also uses similar techniques in his later films: Nacht en Dei (2011)[43] and Sailing across images (2012)[44].

The most significant issue of Tamaki’s recent film art is the exploration of film material that results in images of defragmented 16mm shots. The author’s intention was to emphasize the importance of the technology he uses and, at the same time, to remind the viewer that beyond the picture on the screen also lies the process of creation. Disorientating images of the city and its inhabitants appear in the Dying Moon (2005)[45], One Record on December (2007)[46], Scene 1 (2008)[47] and Uneven Image (2009)[48]. In this case, the author also tries to disorientate the perception of the observer, as during the projection the picture cracks, changes shape, blurs, and is covered with visible spots and stripes, characteristic of old tape. It seems that Tamaki wants to give the viewer the opportunity to adopt, for a brief moment, the point of view of the filmmaker working with the medium. Furthermore, thanks to the disorientating techniques and sudden close ups, Tamaki can implement his philosophy concerning the attempts to change the viewer’s perception and, at the same time, develop his unique visual style. In addition, as this Japanese artist possesses extraordinary technical skills and abilities to perform photochemical processes on the film, he is able to take the viewer into an unforgettable stroll inside the world of experimental arts. He achieves all this working only with the image: Tamaki does not consider music (or other sounds) to be necessary for the complete comprehension of his art, so his films are silent[49].

Shinkan Tamaki seems to be the most open to contact with his followers as, apart from his web page, he also maintains his Facebook profile (completely open), where he adds his fans as friends. The Japanese artist successfully builds his media presence by posting his films on Vimeo and attending film festivals. Recently he has been working on installations and performances focused on architectonic landscapes of cities.


It is difficult to imagine the new generation of Japanese experimental filmmakers without their technologies. These young artists are extremely well prepared for the art creation process, as they perceive technical education to be an unavoidable part of their careers. Considering the examples of the presented authors, it can be perceived that they, in contrast to the artists of the 1970s and 1980s, graduated from prestigious Universities and Schools with the aim of becoming visual artists. In interviews, they often mention the fact that education is important for creating what they call “good art”. The youngest generation wants to improve the quality and reception of the “new avant-garde”, continuing the tradition of a collective cooperation of artists and cultivating relationships with audiences. Thanks to their impressive skills, the authors are mostly able to complete filmmaking processes by themselves, using digital post-production tools, composing soundtracks, and preparing the distribution copies of their art.

On the other hand, new Japanese experimental art is so strongly related to new media and technologies that authors are often unable to stick to their preferred but less sophisticated technologies, and are forced to adapt new ones. The price of materials, which are lower in the case of digital technologies, and distribution issues make using older technological solutions simply unprofitable. Together with the issue of costs—inevitable during the creation process—comes a completely new phenomenon in the field of experimental filmmaking: the presence of the artist on the Internet. Nowadays it is crucial for experimental artists to promote themselves by creating their own websites, post their movies on popular sites (e.g. YouTube, Vimeo), or keep in touch with their followers by updating Facebook or Twitter profiles. It can be observed that those who take care of their “internet presence”, as does Takashi Makino, gain profit, invitations to festivals, and are more recognizable than artists who avoid (or do not explore enough) the new media. This state can be perceived as a limiting (or even oppressive) aspect of technology as artists who choose not to be “digital” are partly excluded from the artistic community. However, in this case, the ambivalence of the new technologies fully manifests itself. Easy access to the Internet makes it possible to promote branches of art that, before the era of the new media, were mostly dedicated to elite viewers educated in the avant-garde and experimental visualizations. The Internet has made experimental art more egalitarian and available to everyone interested in contemplating its uniqueness.

The artists presented in this article make use of digital techniques and access to the Internet in a masterful way. The promotion process of their achievements starts and ends on websites in the form of relations, posts, reviews, interviews, videos and personal comments. The new technology has liberated their artistic potential, supporting their visual attempts with the best, still developing, tools. However, the question of the boundaries between experimental film and targeted commercial products remains without an answer. The authors do not give the researchers any clues, simply stating that they are an “avant-garde movement with new digital tools”.


Ars Electronica 2014, http://prix2014.aec.at/prixwinner/12220/, date accessed 29 March 2016.

Ian P. Howard, Brian J. Rogers, Binocular Vision and Stereopsis, (New York, Oxford University Press) (1995), p. 535 – 548.

Joel Vacheron, “Kazuhiro Goshima: After the Metabolic Cities”, 12th Biennial of Moving Images in Geneva, (JRP | Ringier, Centre St-Gervais, Genève) (2007).

Julian Ross, “Interview: Takashi Makino, Filmcomment  September/October  (2014), http://www.filmcomment.com/blog/interview-takashi-makino/, date accessed 20 February 2016.

Katy Martin, “Interview with Daichi Saito and Tomonari Nishikawa”, Asia Experimental Media Issue, EXIS International Film and Video Festival, Seoul, Korea, http://katymartin.net/assets/katy-martin-saito-nishikawa-interview-dec08.pdf, date accessed 1 April 2016.

Kazuhiro Goshima’s webpage, http://www.goshiman.com/hp/04profile_e.html, date accessed 28.03.2016.

Los Ageles Film Forum, “Takashi Makino: Entering a Noisy Cosmos”, http://www.lafilmforum.org/archive/fall-2014-schedule/makino-takashi-entering-a-noisy-cosmos/, date accessed 30 March 2016.

Marianne Shaneen, “Takashi Makino’s 2012”, BOMB – Artist in Conversation Magazine, 130 (2015), http://bombmagazine.org/article/2000042/takashi-makino-s-em-2012-em, date accessed 9.12.2015.

Mono no aware, http://mononoawarefilm.com/special-engagements/connectivity-through-cinema-with-tomonari-nishikawa-in-person/, date accessed 2 April 2016.

Paul Roquet, “Atmosphere as Culture: Ambient Media and Postindustrial Japan”, Electronic Thesis and Dissertations UC Berkeley (2012), http://escholarship.org/uc/item/4cm3z3rj, date accessed 18.12.2015.

Plus Screenings 2009-2013, red. T. Makino, (Engine Books) (2014).

Shinkan Tamaki’s website, http://shinkantamaki.net/about/, date accessed 6 April 2016.

Takahiko Iimura, The Collected Writings of Takahiko Iimura, (London, New York, Wildside Press LLC) (2007).

Takashi Makino’s personal blog, http://makinokino.exblog.jp/, date accessed 17 April 2016.

The Japan Times, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2015/02/05/arts/kazuhiro-goshima-sheer-amount-information-4k-exceeds-reality/#.VvmZ4kcoN8h, date accessed 28.03.2016.

Tomonari Nishikawa film works, http://www.tomonarinishikawa.com/film.htm, date accessed 2 April 2016.


2012 (Takashi Makino, 2013).

Africa (2010, Shinkan Tamaki).

Dying Moon (2005, Shinkan Tamaki).

FADE into WHITE #1 (1996, Kazuhiro Goshima).

FADE into WHITE #2 (2000).

FADE into WHITE #3 (2001).

FADE into WHITE #4 (2003).

Nacht en Dei (2011, Shinkan Tamaki).

One Record on December (2007, Shinkan Tamaki).

Sailing across images (2012, Shinkan Tamaki).

Scene 1 (2008, Shinkan Tamaki).

Shadowland (2013, Kazuhiro Goshima).

Sketch Film #1 (2005, Tomonari Nishikawa).

Sketch Film #2 (2005, Tomonari Nishikawa).

Uneven Image (2009, Shinkan Tamaki).


[1] Julian Ross, “Interview: Takashi Makino, Filmcomment September/October  (2014), http://www.filmcomment.com/blog/interview-takashi-makino/, date accessed 20 February 2016.

[2] Kazuhiro Goshima’s webpage, http://www.goshiman.com/hp/04profile_e.html, date accessed 28 March 2016.

[3] The series contains four videos: FADE into WHITE #1 (1996, Kazuhiro Goshima), FADE into WHITE #2 (2000), FADE into WHITE #3 (2001) and FADE into WHITE #4 (2003).

[4] Joel Vacheron, “Kazuhiro Goshima: After the Metabolic Cities”, 12th Biennial of Moving Images in Geneva, (JRP | Ringier, Centre St-Gervais, Genève) (2007), p. 42.

[5]Shadowland (2013, Kazuhiro Goshima).

[6] Ars Electronica 2014, http://prix2014.aec.at/prixwinner/12220/, date accessed 29 March 2016.

[7] A digital single-lens reflex camera is the most common type of camera in use between 2000 and 2016. More information can be found at Photo Review, http://www.photoreview.com.au/guides/pocket-guides/digital-slr/Choosing-a-DSLR-Camera, date accessed 29 March 2016.

[8]Ars Electronica 2014.

[9]Ars Electronica 2014.

[10] Los Ageles Film Forum, “Takashi Makino: Entering a Noisy Cosmos”, http://www.lafilmforum.org/archive/fall-2014-schedule/makino-takashi-entering-a-noisy-cosmos/, date accessed 30 March 2016.

[11]Plus Screenings 2009-2013, ed. T. Makino, (Engine Books) (2014).

[12] Los Ageles Film Forum.

[13]2012 (Takashi Makino, 2013).

[14]Los Ageles Film Forum.

[15]Marianne Shaneen, “Takashi Makino’s 2012”, BOMB – Artist in Conversation Magazine, 130 (2015), http://bombmagazine.org/article/2000042/takashi-makino-s-em-2012-em, date accessed 9.12.2015.

[16] Los Angeles Film Forum.

[17] Ian P. Howard, Brian J. Rogers, Binocular Vision and Stereopsis, (New York, Oxford University Press) (1995), p. 535 – 548.

[18] Julian Ross.

[19]Julian Ross.

[20]Julian Ross.

[21]Julian Ross.

[22] Takashi Makino’s personal blog, http://makinokino.exblog.jp/, date accessed 17 April 2016.

[23]Katy Martin, “Interview with Daichi Saito and Tomonari Nishikawa”, Asia Experimental Media Issue, EXIS International Film and Video Festival, Seoul, Korea, pp. 264-302, http://katymartin.net/assets/katy-martin-saito-nishikawa-interview-dec08.pdf, date accessed 1 April 2016.

[24] Katy Martin is a visual artist, performer, and curator. She also conducts interviews with the experimental artists whose exhibitions she helps to create. More information about Katy Martin and her writings can be found on her website: http://katymartin.net/, date accessed 1 April 2016.

[25] Katy Martin, p. 7.

[26]Katy Martin, p. 8.

[27]Katy Martin, p. 9.

[28] Mono no aware, http://mononoawarefilm.com/special-engagements/connectivity-through-cinema-with-tomonari-nishikawa-in-person/, date accessed 2 April 2016.

[29] The series contains five 3 minutes films: Sketch Film#1,2,3,4 and 5.

[30] Tomonari Nishikawa film works, http://www.tomonarinishikawa.com/film.htm, date accessed 2 April 2016.

[31] Katy Martin, pp. 9 – 10.

[32]Sketch Film #1 (2005, Tomonari Nishikawa).

[33]Sketch Film #2 (2005, Tomonari Nishikawa).

[34] Katy Martin, pp. 9 – 10.

[35] Tomonari Nishikawa film works.

[36] Katy Martin, pp. 9 – 10.

[37]Tomonari Nishikawa film works.

[38]Tomonari Nishikawa film works.

[39]Tomonari Nishikawa film works.

[40] Shinkan Tamaki’s website, http://shinkantamaki.net/about/, date accessed 6 April 2016.

[41] Shinkan Tamaki’s website.

[42]Africa (2010, Shinkan Tamaki).

[43]Nacht en Dei (2011, Shinkan Tamaki).

[44]Sailing across images (2012, Shinkan Tamaki).

[45]Dying Moon (2005, Shinkan Tamaki).

[46]One Record on December (2007, Shinkan Tamaki).

[47]Scene 1 (2008, Shinkan Tamaki).

[48]Uneven Image (2009, Shinkan Tamaki).

[49]Shinkan Tamaki’s website.

Agnieszka Kiejziewicz – Her research interests revolve around the Japanese film and other visual arts performed by the artists from the Country of Cherry Blossoms. Until now she has written about Shinto religion in Japanese cinematography and the Japanese independent cyberpunk cinema. Currently, she is researching on the avant-garde and experimental films, searching for the new and less known achievements of the young filmmakers. In the experimental art, she seeks for the innovative forms, as well as fresh insight into common social problems, introduced by the Japanese artists. Continuingly, she focuses on the transgressive bodies and the role of the new technologies.

My life in art. A conversation with Bill Viola

Andrzej Pitrus

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 115-119

Andrzej Pitrus

Jagiellonian Univeristy



My life in art. A conversation with Bill Viola 

September 3, 2015


Andrzej Pitrus: You started making art videos in early ’70, when most of the artists were influenced by conceptualism. Although your works were different, there are some elements of conceptual art in early works (Tape I, Level etc). Was this tradition important for you? Is it important now?

Bill Viola:   Conceptual for me is another word for exploration and experimentation. In the early years, it was important to find out how this new medium of video worked, what the camera did, and how far you could push the live or recorded image until it disintegrated.

You mention Nam June Paik as one of your masters. In what way did he influence your work?

Nam June Paik was a visionary and a cherished mentor to me. He taught me that you could take ordinary objects or images and transform them into a radical statement on the way we perceive the world. I was privileged, as his assistant on many occasions, to watch him work and make creative decisions toward achieving his extraordinary artwork.

In your opinion, video is much closer to audio recording than film. In your early works, sound is usually important; more recent ones are usually silent or include only “diegetic” sound. Do you plan to explore sound (what aspects) in your future projects?


For a long time, I always recorded the sound together with the image and pretty much used that sound the way it came, even when being cut or slowed down. When I began working in 35 mm for some pieces that needed extreme slow motion, I could not record the sound at the same time because of the noise of the camera, or directions that needed to be relayed at the time of filming. So for the works where sound was needed, I began working with sound designers who helped to bring a different kind of environment to the works. The piece always determines if there is sound or not. With the Passions series pieces (mostly shot in 35 mm film) that are an exploration of the emotions, they are silent as I wanted the emotions to come through loudly.

“Reflecting Pool” is probably one of the most iconic of all Bill Viola’s works. You include it in most of the exhibitions, even those that focus on more recent works. Why?

People tend to show this work frequently, it has the whole mystery of life embedded in seven minutes, death: with the jump into the water; life: the reflections in the water; and rebirth: the new-born exiting naked from the water.

I really enjoy your immersive installations. It is a pity you exhibit them so rarely. Is it because of technical problems (they are certainly more difficult to transport), or do you consider them a “closed chapter”? Now you prefer projections or plasma panels. Do you have plans to create more “walk-in” installations in the future?

We have always included the video installations in larger exhibitions where space is available. They are immersive and often visceral. When the plasma and LCD screens came out in the second part of the 90s, they fascinated me and were perfect for my study of the emotions. I continue to make both kinds of works.

Many video artists of the ’60s and ’70s rejected traditional aesthetic categories (including beauty). You “rediscovered” them for media art. Weren’t you tempted to remake Reflecting Pool in high definition? In the late ’70s you were very limited by technology. Yet, this video is still so fascinating as a beautiful image.

There are some videotapes and installations that I have restored or re-edited, and usually that is because I have the raw materials in good shape, and saw that my vision was better served by upgrading the piece, but most of the works remain the same. It is not always important to have the clarity of high definition, in fact sometimes the clearer the image, the less we see.

I guess that as a very young person you were not interested in making films. Later, while making Passions, you decided to use some elements film technology. Why? Was it only because video was not perfect enough? Steve McQueen, who used to be a video artist, now makes movies? Aren’t you tempted too?

I have never been interested in the limitations of film, and of the narrative way of making films. I used 35 mm film only for its slow motion capabilities; the camera that I used was able to shoot at 300 frames per second, to achieve smooth slow motion. Now video can easily do that.

Another formula you experimented with (but not too much) is interactive art. I have seen (and played with) your “Night Journey” in Liverpool. It attracted lots of people who were not really familiar with media art. Most of them were gamers. Is it still a work in progress? Do you plan to release it commercially as an “art house game”?

The Night Journey has been a long-term collaboration with the Game Innovation Lab of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. We hope to complete it soon, once we transpose it to a new platform.

What is your opinion on interactive art generally? Do you enjoy it as viewers/users? Do you think it still allows the artist to control the meaning of the artwork?

There is another work I made in 1997 with ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany, The Tree of Knowledge, which is an interactive computer/video installation. It gives the viewer the freedom to move within a long corridor to control the digital growth (and death) of a tree, but within certain parameters. The meaning of the work does not change just because someone else can control the outcome.

In most of your works, you prefer “analogue” technologies instead of CGI (eg. “waterfall” in Transfigurations which could be replaced with CGI). Do you think computer generated images have their place in video art? To what extent do you use computers? Were they used in “Angel at the Door” for example?

I work with the elements and find that there is no need to change nature; it is a very powerful force. The only time it is not real is when we “burn” an actor. Fire is dangerous and we need to build the flames in the edit room, but even then, most of the time, these are real flames recorded on “plate shots” and not CGI. Angel at the door is real; there were two actors in the shot at the end.

Your musical collaborations are really surprising. Three different projects: popular music, experimental music and opera. I wonder if you have any other similar plans? Also, what was the reason for your collaboration with Trent Reznor? I really liked it, but it was quite brave to show your video to a completely different audience.

I have collaborated on very few “music videos” because I don’t usually collaborate too well. I was quite attracted to the music of these three projects and admired the composers. Trent called one day and asked me to listen to some of the tracks that he wanted me to work on, and I found his work to be exceptional, so I agreed. He is a very talented musician and composer.

Bill Viola’s works are really sophisticated and require lots of knowledge and competence. Yet, some people experience them without this knowledge. For example, once in MOMA “Information’ was exhibited with very little information (or even no info at all) on how the work was created. Is it possible—in your opinion—to ‘read’ your works without proper knowledge about their context? With one’s emotions only?

I feel it is always important to approach a new experience with an open mind. We often don’t put wall labels next to the work so that the viewer can interact on their own terms with the piece, and to allow the work to speak with them directly. We don’t like descriptive texts unless they are part of a brochure that people can reference later, as a memory. We plan the exhibitions as a journey, where the works interact with each other, and the viewers are “submerged” into another world.

I was surprised to see members of the Viola family in recent works. Kira Perov has been a close collaborator of Bill Viola for over 30 years. Now she appears in Chapel of Frustrated Actions…, there is also Blake Viola, and a self-portrait for Uffizi. Is your art becoming more and more personal?

 I have always used myself or friends and family in my work, and of course actors and performers too. Kira has been part of the work all along, she has been the producer on all projects and worked on every shoot. She manages our whole operation. As photographer, she has documented our life’s work and she edits all our publications. It is hard not to include personal subjects, when the art is actually the life.

Originally published in Polish in Andrzej Pitrus monography on Bill Viola’s work Zanurzony. O sztuce Billa Violi (Jagiellonien University Press) (2015).

Transcultural Art of Bill Viola

Krzysztof Loska

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol. 1, no. 1, pp.120-122

Krzysztof Loska

Jagiellonian University

Transcultural Art of Bill Viola

Two extensive monographs devoted to the oeuvre of Bill Viola, one of the greatest contemporary video artists, were almost simultaneously published in the United States and Poland. Both books discuss not only his early works from the early 1970s, but also his latest installations presented recently in Venice, Berlin and London. The first book was prepared by John G. Hanhardt[1], a famous art critic and curator of many exhibitions who works with the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, while the second book was written in Polish by Andrzej Pitrus[2], who for more than a decade has been studying new media art and has published numerous articles on Bill Viola. The American monograph is more like a catalogue of the exhibition, due to its large size and wealth of illustrations (350 altogether), while the Polish one—much humbler in this respect—focuses primarily on the interpretation of the artist’s works and tries to place them in a broad historical, cultural and artistic context.

In fifteen chapters, Andrzej Pitrus reconstructs Viola’s artistic career in essentially chronological order. The subsequent chapters present how particular threads developed in the successive stages of Viola’s career and consistently place them in the context of his entire oeuvre. From the beginning, Pitrus draws attention to Bill Viola’s penchant for specific topics and ways of artistic expression, and proves that even in the earliest works his artistic strategy was based on manipulating the course of time in order to initiate a reflection on the nature of perception.

Andrzej Pitrus concentrates on the issues that I personally also find crucial. These include the artist’s inclination to experiment with sound, which can become a factor that shapes the structure of a visual layer when it undermines the dominant system of the opposition, in which the image dominates the sound. This approach stems from Viola’s belief that video images can be treated as “variants of a musical tradition of the East regarded as an alternative to a tradition of the West”[3]. Here another interesting interpretive trail emerges, namely the relationship of the artist with the philosophical and religious systems of the Middle and Far East, such as Sufism, Hinduism, Tibetan Buddhism and Japanese Zen, which appear inexhaustible sources of inspiration for many of his works.

Pitrus convincingly justifies a thesis that for Viola video art is by no means a way of recording reality, nor is it a medium for storytelling (similar to the cinema); on the contrary, it becomes a tool for experimentation and reflection on the nature of human perception. This is evident in the analysis of such early works as The Wheel of Becoming, where the video is “a tool which, on the one hand, mimics the fragmented perception of the world revealing itself to man through the senses, but, on the other—in its deep structure—is capable of restoring its proper consistency”[4] (49 – 50). This awareness of differences between the cinema and video art also helps one realize a close relationship between a video recording and an audio recording, which may be fully seen in one of the most famous works by Viola: Reflecting Pool. This sensitivity to the acoustic layer could also be seen later when the artist cooperated with Trent Reznor, for whom he prepared a visual illustration for three tracks from the album entitled The Fragile.

However, this does not mean that the American artist totally ignores the issue of “reproducing” reality. It is suffice to mention a series of films made for the Samoan Islands, a unique collection of ethnographic documents in the spirit of Jean Rouch, rising from the concept of participatory cinema, making it possible to cross the boundaries between the director and the film protagonist. The main subject of these films was the problem of the appropriation of the authentic culture of the indigenous people of the islands by Western civilization, but it seems that the reflection on the technological constraints in trying to show that intercultural meeting was equally important.

An encounter with Japanese culture and visits to the Land of the Rising Sun clearly played an important role in shaping of Bill Viola’s artistic sensitivity, which can be seen especially in the works that date from the late 1970s and 1980s (including Vegetable Memory, Hatatsu-Yume). For Pitrus Viola’s works of this period do not only reveal a fascination with the aesthetics of Zen, but are also clearly inspired by the traditional landscape painting of the Edo period, especially with regards to a peculiar understanding of the relationship between nature and art. Other points of reference that consistently appear in the works of Viola include Arab poets (Rumi), Christian mystics (Saint John of the Cross), and Taoism.

Andrzej Pitrus argues that almost all works of the American artist may be interpreted in the context of multiculturalism, though perhaps a more accurate description would be the notion of transculturalism, in the way it was understood by the German philosopher Wolfgang Welsch. Although Pitrus regards intertextual references as an important key for interpretation, he also follows other threads. He devotes a lot of space to autobiographical references, which occurred both in the early period of Viola’s career (e.g. in Moonblood, dedicated to his wife) and in the mature works, the most interesting of which seems to be The Passing, a single-channel video dedicated to his sick mother and covering the mourning after her death. What is crucial here is evoking memories and subordinating them to the logic of a dream. This method enables the artist to bring together apparently “random” shots.

In the last chapters of the book, Pitrus emphasizes Viola’s inspirations that he seeks in the works of great masters of painting, and in religion. The latter seems to be particularly important for Viola, both in terms of the form (the artist is extremely fond of diptychs and triptychs), and with regard to the sacred character of the places where he has presented his installations. However, what Pitrus finds particularly interesting are the two original projects: one of them was produced in collaboration with Peter Sellars, a prominent theatre director, for whom Viola prepared a video as the major component of the staging of Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, while the other means something totally different than the artist’s previous areas of interest; namely, a computer game project for Sony PlayStation.

Andrzej Pitrus’s extremely erudite book, which proves both his thorough knowledge of the subject and the skill of writing in such a way that will definitely encourage readers to learn more about contemporary art, ends with an interesting interview with Bill Viola himself. If I were to mention what I miss in the book, it might be a comprehensive introduction that could help readers better understand the context of the art of new media and which would generally characterize Viola’s achievements. Finally, a list of works at the end of the book as a kind of artistic calendar might be useful. Even though Viola is such a prolific artist, most of his works are not known to wider audiences.

Andrzej Pitrus, Zanurzony. O sztuce Billa Violi, (Kraków: Jagiellonian University Press) (2015), 214 p.


[1] John G. Hanhardt, Bill Viola (Thames & Hudson) (2015).

[2] Andrzej Pitrus, Zanurzony. O sztuce Billa Violi (Krakow: Jagiellonian University Press) (2015).

[3] Andrzej Pitrus, p. 31.

[4] Andrzej Pitrus, pp. 49-50.

Sixty years later

Alicja Helman

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 123-128

Alicja Helman

Jagiellonian University


Sixty years later

A brief publication by Justyna Żelasko entitled Przygoda w Pociągu. Początki polskiego modernizmu filmowego (Adventure on a Train. Beginnings of Modernism in Polish Cinema) provokes thoughts that extend beyond its subject matter. Interpreting films attributed to the Polish Film School in a way that had not previously occurred locally, the author initiates a completely new direction of research. Yet, at the same time, she holds a certain position among researchers who have analysed this phenomenon for decades. Żelasko advances varying propositions, although they are not strictly radical.

It was a common conviction that the emergence of the Polish Film School marked a new chapter in Polish cinema, yet the idea was constrained by a certain unilateral thinking present in film studies in the past. It is said that every generation writes its own story. However, the representatives of later generations complemented rather than revised the propositions formulated “on the spur of the moment”, when the Polish Film School was still developing. The emerging discussions covered the content of the School’s films in terms of worldview, historiosophy, politics, relation to tradition, and interpretations of attitudes: in other words, all that can be recognized under the term “the fate of a Polish man”. Much less attention was paid to the artistic side, the language, and poetics. In view of the importance of the elements related to the content, the matter of form paled into insignificance, if it was mentioned at all. Moreover, the style of reception in those years established the criteria of topic selection and influenced how problems of contemporary film watching practice are presented. Similar observations concerning this period can be found in every historian’s writing. Therefore, it is distinctive that the same point of view is also expressed by the people who, in the first place, influenced cinema after the October breakthrough in Poland and changed it according to the formal criteria.

Furthermore, it should also be remembered that in those years the unique thinking of the cinema—focused on its separateness, uniqueness, and characterized by particularism—started losing ground to an all-embracing approach. According to this point of view, a movie sets a place of meeting, collision, and interaction between many ideas. This concept can also be considered as a complex statement, concerning not only the present or past reality, but also cultural tradition, other arts, currents of thoughts existing in the epoch, and its basic configurations. That is why the trend emerged that postulated treating the films produced in the second half of the 1950s as “near-literary” compositions. Almost every film was an adaptation of a contemporary literary work and the screenwriters and co-screenwriters involved in the process were professionals working in production teams. Consequently, disputes concerning the problem of authorship brought a new matter to the discussion. The screenwriters demanded to be considered as the fathers of the success or, at least, to be noticed (concerning the popularity of Wajda’s, Munk’s and Kawalerowicz’s films). Is it the author himself who is responsible for the content of the picture, or is it he who shaped its visual form? Pursuit of the answer to this question is not the main subject of this essay; it is enough to mention that the directors won the conflict. Finally, as Konrad Eberhardt wrote, in cooperating with the camera operators they found the “form and way” that established cinema as “aesthetically responsible”[1].

In retrospect, of greatest importance are the questions: How did they find the way and form? What were their sources of inspiration? To which traditions did they refer? Did they use particular patterns consciously or unconsciously? The creators of the Polish Film School were disconnected neither from world heritage nor from what was happening in European and American cinematography at that time. They were acquainted with the current cinema and they wanted and were obliged to establish a dialogue with it.

The examination of the problems concerning form, language, and poetics started from the question of the sources of inspiration. The results more often appeared as remarks of a more general nature, or less often as analyses of formal solutions of a technical character. Neorealism was considered the first and unquestionable source of inspiration. In this case, it could not have been different. After the emergence of neorealism, it was impossible to return to earlier forms of realistic poetry. Therefore, in the most general understanding of the term ‘neorealism’, it appeared wherever the author expressed himself in the style and spirit of realism. Bolesław Michałek writes that neorealism in Poland functioned as “an instrument to forge new forms of expression”[2]. However, he contended that the group connected to Polish cinema, which gained an advantage between 1954 and 1956, does not owe as much to neorealism as was believed. The traces of these inspirations are obviously visible in certain places. However, indicating the neorealist influences suggested by researchers was often invalid.

The aesthetics of the Polish Film School frequently derived from Expressionism. Nonetheless, the critics assigned different meanings to this style: colloquial, historical, or updated by new experiences. The poetics of expressionism, with its characteristic type of distorted visual effects, the technique of handling film images, the method of evoking a mood, and searching for an equivalent for expressing inner states in specific methods of organizing materials; all occur within multiple periods. The recurring aspect is the one related to universal values beyond the historical character of expressionism, not with the historical variability of the poetics of German Expressionism. Expressionism was mainly a school of artistic perception. The creators recognized the possibilities of expression in the field of film art through the achievements and opportunities offered by painting and architecture.

The problematic of the references of the Polish Film School to historical experiences was summarized concisely by Marek Hendrykowski: “The active past, kind of an ‘artistic memory’ of the Polish Film School, from now on will include not only the realistic context which was most important before, but also other images of artistic experience visible in 20th century art: from expressionism, through surrealism and existentialism together with ‘situation theatre’ and the theatre of the absurd (Kanal, Eroica), down to the creative adaptations of poetic realism in film, poetry and painting, with its lyrical-dramatic focus on the privacy and inner world of the human (Somersault, The Last Day of Summer)”[3].

In Hendrykowski’s comments, the phrases “the active past” and “an artistic memory” are important because they underline the tendency that also appears in many other texts written by historians of Polish cinema. According to them, the Polish Film School should be seen from the perspective of its times, referring to the humanistic interpretation of the historical character distinguished by Jerzy Kmita[4].

However, today the most interesting achievement of the Polish Film School appears in the form of a completely different point of view, revealing aspects that were impossible to notice before. The problems with recognition of the aforementioned aspects appeared because of the lack of distance and appropriate tools available to the researchers. The abbreviation “tools” in this case means not only new research techniques, but also a new language of description, as well as new trends and concepts of thought.

Firstly, Justyna Żelasko places the group of films from the period of the Polish Film School in the context of modernism. According to the author, the chosen films: Night Train (Pociąg) by Jerzy Kawalerowicz, How to be Loved (Jak być kochaną) and The Codes (Szyfry) by Wojciech Jerzy Has, The Last Day of Summer (Ostatni dzień lata) and Somersault (Salto) by Tadeusz Konwicki, Nobody’s Calling (Nikt nie woła) by Kazimierz Kutz, and The Passenger (Pasażerka) by Andrzej Munk are related to each other in terms of innovative film language and their “close origins of formal experiments”. Night Train, How to be Loved, and Jump depict how the memories of World War II and the following events determinate the experience of the present reality. The second group of films demonstrates the way in which those events can become catalysts of a particular view of reality, perceived as a code that “requires deciphering”. The books of Gilles Deleuze (Cinema 1-2) and András Bálint Kovács (Screening Modernism) can be mentioned as the methodological inspirations of the author.

“Both researchers, as the basis of the changes in the language of film at the turn of the 50s and 60s, point to experience rooted in the post-war period. They perceive it as the most important impulse to recognize the previous forms of expression as outdated. This experience also inspired the search for new forms that were more appropriate in the context of the modern human condition and were related to living in in a constantly changing reality in the shadow of the two Great Wars. In the view of Deleuze and Kovács, whose diagnoses are the starting point for my research perspective concerning the display of this world on the screen, the cinema had to invent new codes to be able to describe its fundamental dimensions; previous forms of expression seem to be inadequate. I assume that without knowing the aforementioned codes, understanding the language of film is impossible, and the historical experience which they tried to record is inaccessible to the viewer” (pp. 13-14).

The title of the book is also significant. Przygoda w Pociągu, in the literal meaning, can be associated with Kawalerowicz’s film, which is the primary picture interpreted by the author. In addition, it brings to mind Antonioni’s film L’avventura, which is considered an emblem and a ground-breaking work in the field of film language development. It should also be mentioned that although L’avventura won the special prize for innovative language in Cannes, it was booed by the festival audience. Our [Polish] critics reviewed Night Train kindly, but without enthusiasm, not recognizing any innovative aspects. In those years, this was normal practice. Justyna Żelasko immediately noticed that when it comes to the texts of the epoch, if the problem of form was taken into consideration, it was connected with a particular technical aspect, isolated from the context of the content (subjective camera, distinctive camera operating solutions). “The experience of modernity” that is the returning motif of a “Train” causes the elements of the content, as well as those connected with the form, to be conditional upon each other, almost eliminating the boundaries between them.

The subject of language, presented from a different point of view, will return in the following chapters. At the beginning of the interpretation of the film entitled How to be Loved, the author starts from Deleuze’s concept of the “incoherence of the experience, as well as the language describing it”, which is typical of the period covered by this article. The memory of the war and post-war events—as Justyna Żelasko writes—becomes “the catalyst of a new perception of reality, the reason why the previous descriptions are no longer up-to-date”.

The category taken from Deleuze’s theory of the crystal-image makes it possible, according to the author, to most accurately represent the narration of Has’s film, underlining the distinctive connections between real and virtual things. The present (the picture on the screen) and the past (memories, fantasies, roles, and images that blend into current pictures) are intangibly connected with each other, presenting the metaphysical meanings on the screen.

The next reference to Deleuze can be found in chapter III, in which the language in Somersault is characterized and the “crisis of the steady object, the connection between language, reality and the representation of values […] are mentioned. The presented world turns out to be a distinctive projection of Kowalski-Malinowski. The relationship between him and the outside world, as well as the efforts to integrate his own identity, appears on the narrative level. While navigating through the universe of cultural meanings, the character reconstructs his own position in the world” (p. 95).

Deleuze introduces a group of films presenting a radical version of the crystal-image (lack of distinction between the real and imagined) as a part of the distorted narration, where it is impossible to distinguish what is really true. Somersault seems to fit in this category, but Kowalski-Malinowski is not a triumphant Deleuzian counterfeiter—a creator of truth, who is aware of his power. In Somersault, we observe powerlessness, impotence, lack of fulfilment, and the sense of a crisis.

The crisis of the cinema of ‘movement-image’, as Deleuze writes, disturbs the order of a common sense vision of reality (classic cinema strongly established this vision). Thus, cause, effect, and spatiotemporal and teleological order are deranged. Their disorganization brings the feeling of disorientation and—on the level of the cinema—it causes the destruction of the existing language. The author emphasizes the weakening of the narration, the separation into episodes, the dispersion of the composition, the reinterpretation of the genres, the transfer of the meaning of the plot into the picture, and the connections between the images.

The natural consequence of the changes is the emergence of the ‘time-image’. Previous connections were replaced by new ones. “They are constituting themselves in the moment, while the actual image […] not only opposes the connection with the other one, but also opens into its own virtual image […], in other words, into a set of new references” (p. 106).

Of course, these few indications presented in the context of the author’s interpretation cannot express the complex nature of Justyna Żelasko’s precise and influential analyses. She covers many problems that complement the main subject and correspond with it in the field of content and form or rather—according to her intention—focus on their mutual impact.

The author describes the characters in the interpreted films as “pursued by history” (by underground sentences, war memories, unsolved mysteries). The pressure of history on the individual is the main motif used by the Polish Film School artists, and by some not mentioned by Justyna Żelasko. The characters are imprisoned in the past; involved in and simultaneously affected by past events, when they should be able to start new lives. They cannot (or maybe they do not want to) do this. However, the distinction of the certain groups of films made by Justyna Żelasko is worth emphasizing. Not all films classified as Polish Film School pictures present the character’s fate, which is determined by history, in the same way. Here the author makes use of Hayden White’s approach and his two models of historical narrations. The first treats history in a way that enables its representation in the form of a linear story. This kind of narration was distinctive for the phase of ‘movement-image’ and—in all possible variations—revealed the chosen aspect, while at the same time hiding other facets. The events of the 20th century, which were described by White as “modernistic” (two World Wars, the Holocaust), initiated the discussion about the lack of descriptive language. Modernism created the second model of the historical narrative, one in which the differences between events are obliterated and their representations in the discourse take into consideration the basic oppositions of the true and the false, and the subjective and objective. While in their way of presenting history and using images, the films of Wajda and Munk represent the first type of story, the films of Has, Konwicki, and Kutz, as interpreted by the author, are classified as the second type. In this case, an ally of Justyna Żelasko is also Bergson, who distinguishes “automatic recognition” and “attentive recognition” as a part of his concept of human actions determined by time. The first is based on habits, beliefs and attitudes, which means that a reaction to particular events is predictable. The second leads to the deeper content of consciousness and occurs when a person rejects automatic reactions. This division is confirmed by the conceptions of the ‘movement-image’ and ‘time-image’.

It is difficult to leave the book at the end of the process of writing about Przygoda w Pociągu, as it offers an extremely wide range of threads and related connections. It is only fair to say that to acknowledge this extraordinary work by Justyna Żelasko, one should quote her book.

Justyna Żelasko, Przygoda w Pociągu. Początki polskiego modernizmu filmowego (Has, Kawalerowicz, Konwicki, Kutz, Munk) (Kraków: Korporacja ha!art) (2015).



[1] Konrad Eberhardt, „Spory wokół estetyki”, in idem, O polskich filmach. Warszawa: WAiF 1982, p. 183.

[2] Bolesław Michałek, „Polska przygoda neorealizmu”, Kino 1 (1975), p. 28.

[3] Marek Hendrykowski, „‘Polska szkoła filmowa’ jako formacja artystyczna”, in „Szkoła polska” – powroty, ed. Ewelina Nurczyńska-Fidelska, Bronisława Stolarska (Łódź: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Łódzkiego) (1998), p. 14.

[4] Jerzy Kmita, Wykłady z logiki i metodologii nauk (Warszawa: PWN) (1975), p.218.


“TransMissions: Journal of Film and Media Studies” (ISSN 2451-5116)  is an online academic journal issued by the Institute of Audiovisual Arts at the Jagiellonian University, Poland, addressed to scholars, researchers, professionals, and students. Thematic issues are published twice a year accompanied with research projects, reviews of recently published works and reports on conferences. The journal provides in-depth perspectives on recent methodologies in film and media studies, new technologies and their cultural contexts, and prefers papers representing interdisciplinary approaches