Global Cinema: Notes (Introducing Key Terms)

These are from lecture notes for a course I regularly teach called Global Cinema. -AS Key Terms and Ideas:

  • Global South
  • Developing World
  • Postcolonial world
  • Third World
  • National Cinema
  • Star Sytem / Celebrity Culture: Connected to National Cinema
  • Academy Awards as a branch of the American National Cinema


I should start with a disclaimer: the terminology we’ll be using is an art, not a science.

To begin with, let’s take a stab at defining what we mean by the “Global South,” a phrase I used in the description for this course.  Geographically, we are referring primarily to Africa, Asia, and Latin America -- but, more specifically, regions within those continents that are less economically advanced. Thus, when we say “Global South,” within Asia we are thinking more of South Asia and Southeast Asia, and less of economically developed countries like Japan and South Korea. 

This is a loose geographical and cultural map -- I decided to include Korean cinema in this course even though South Korea is clearly economically highly developed. But the dialogue with western cinema is pretty intense and important in Korean cinema, and our unit on Bong Joon-Ho will line up pretty well with our other units. (It helps that Bong’s films are especially interested in representing the tension between rich and poor within Korean society.)


Many other terms can refer to the same regions of the world. These terms are not ‘wrong’, though one sees them used in different ways and with slightly different meanings. The term “developing world” (sometimes “developing nations”) refers to economic development theory -- where western Europe, North America, and Northern Asia (Japan, South Korea) are seen as “developed” economies. The term “third world” comes out of the Cold War era -- when highly developed Capitalist countries were identified as “First World,” Communist Countries as “Second World,” and nonaligned countries as “Third World.” This ranking system of course has a problem in that it gives primacy to the “First World,” and makes them the center of the universe. “Third World” suggests places that are far away and backward. Some consider it an obsolete term, though there are radical thinkers and writers from these parts of the world who continue to use it with pride. (Every so often, people will refer to something in the U.S. using the “third world” as a metaphor: “Violence in Chicago is horrible, like something out of the third world…” Here “third world” is a stand-in for violent, corrupt, and backward. The fact that it can be used as a euphemism so easily does suggest we should be wary of “third world,” except unless we are literally referring to three worlds theory and the status of nonaligned countries during the Cold War.

The term I personally have used most in my own research and teaching on South Asia and Anglophone Africa is “postcolonial.” “Postcolonial” refers to regions of the world that were formerly colonized by European powers. Thus, India, Pakistan, Trinidad & Tobago, Jamaica, Kenya, Nigeria, Hong Kong, and Uganda all have in common the fact that they were colonies of England -- part of the British Empire (and today, most of those countries are part of a loose association of countries called the British Commonwealth).

Some regions of the world were never formally colonized by European powers -- China comes to mind, though it was colonized by Japan, which treated its colonial holdings (also including, for a time, Korea) with some of the same condescension the European powers employed in Africa, South Asia, and the Caribbean.

Colonialism was, first and foremost, a political and military relationship of dominance: one power controlling another. It was primarily motivated by economic exploitation -- colonial powers wanted to use their territorial holdings to supply natural resources, cheap labor, and often markets for consumer goods produced in the home country. India exemplified this perfectly: the British took raw textile materials from colonial plantations, turned them into marketable fabric in English factories, and then sold those same materials back to Indian consumers. They also banned Indian textile mills from using industrial looms to refine their cloth. Thus, one of Gandhi’s key planks for resisting British colonialism in the 1910s and 20s was an insistence on only using and wearing ‘homespun’ cloth: clothes made by hand on handlooms, since industrial looms were banned in India.

(Note: while I am mainly talking about British colonialism here, many of the same patterns were also present in French colonialism in Africa and the Caribbean, Dutch colonialism in Indonesia, even Japanese colonialism in China and Korea.)

Third, colonialism had significant cultural impacts on these societies, chief among them (in the British colonial context) being the imposition of the English language and English-medium education. A large class of Indians and Africans were trained to speak and write in English, in part to help administer the colonial bureaucracy. However, some of those English-speaking (or Anglophone) Indians and Africans also started to write in the language of the colonizer, producing a new body of literature scholars call “postcolonial literature.”

Scholars go back and forth with these various terms to describe the type of literature and film we will be talking about in this class: “postcolonial,” “global south,” “developing world.” Sometimes we even simply say, “Global” -- that was the solution I used in titling this class.


Globalization: How are we defining it here? 

There are many different definitions of Globalization out there -- often varying by discipline. Economists tend to focus on the 1971 collapse of the 1944 Bretton Woods Agreement, which occurred when President Nixon disconnected the value of the dollar from the price of gold (under the Bretton Woods Agreement, the U.S. dollar was made the standard for global currency exchange). That set up the era of transnational finance and modern currency trading which are key parts of the economic landscape of globalization in the economic realm.

Political scientists, for their part, tend to focus on 1989-1991: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, and then the fall of the communist government of the Soviet Union itself. This led to the advent of a New World Order, sometimes seen as dictated by the European Union and especially, by the world’s remaining superpower, the United States. However, just as often (and increasingly, in recent years), the era of political globalization is seeing the advent of new transnational frameworks with no one clear dominant force. (One of the key stories of the post-Soviet era is of course the rise of China as a global power...)

We could also talk about population flows and migration. The movement of people around the globe has increased dramatically in the past three decades, leading to unprecedented levels of cross-cultural contact and interaction. Some of these flows have been linked to political changes, but while it’s clear that at least some migration (especially within particular regions) is due to social and economic transformations. The trend towards increased migration can be productive and enriching – it leads different groups of people to come into contact with each other — but it can also lead to increased friction and civil strife.

Let’s take a look at some graphs that relate to population flows in particular. One statistic I have seen is that 2.4 percent of the world’s population migrated from one region to another between 2000-2015. That includes migration within a given country as well as transnational migration.


Also take a look at that graph. What does it tell you? (Hint: the “migrant share of the total population” is far more interesting and important than the total numbers)

 In the films we’ll be looking at in this course, we’ll try and balance the excitement we might associate with the new possibilities of globalization -- the advent of new kinds of cross-cultural interaction and cultural hybridity (new cultural forms) with the anxieties that come out of this moment.


National Cinemas

 National cinemas are film industries organized by nation. Many countries, especially in the developing world, but also nations such as the UK/Great Britain, also have government agencies that directly fund ‘serious’ filmmakers to encourage them to make films that represent the national culture, both for domestic and international audiences.

National cinemas are important, especially for smaller countries, in part because they offer a version of the world from ‘our’ point of view. If, for instance, there’s a war and a series of horrific events that followed it, films can represent (even in fictionalized form) a version of those events and an interpretation that speaks to others who shared that experience.

A classic example of national cinema from the Chinese context is Zhang Yimou’s film To Live, which documented the Maoist revolution in China, including the Civil War between competing ideological parties and then the “Cultural revolution” that radically changed Chinese society in the 1960s. In the Nigerian context, a film like Half of a Yellow Sun does some of the same work – processing a traumatic episode in modern Nigerian history. Perhaps in the American context we could talk about films like Forrest Gump somewhat similarly.

Another function played by national cinemas in smaller countries is an opportunity for members of those countries to hear their languages spoken in films. In a global film landscape dominated by a small number of producers (these days: Hollywood and Bollywood), films made locally, that use local languages and describe local culture, might be few and far between. Another important issue is representing people who actually look like the inhabitants of a given country. When Nigerian filmmakers started making movies in the 1990s, they found that audiences were hungry for the movies – in part because it gave them a mirror of their own culture. The quality of early Nigerian films was not very good, but audiences lapped them up, often circulating them on pirate VHS tapes on the Black market. (Bollywood films, incidentally, have also been quite popular in many African countries, where they circulate with subtitles or dubbing in local languages.)

National Film Cultures / National Movie Stars

Another function of national cinemas is a little indirect: national cinemas tend to produce a local celebrity culture. The actors in commercial films become stars that are talked about on TV, and their images circulate in magazines. The stars support a range of other industries, including fashion and beauty: people buy clothes and get their hair done the way the stars do. Films are produced in part to continue to support the entirety of a celebrity culture: within the film industry, this is called the star system. Classic Hollywood was famous for its star system, though perhaps it’s been a little diluted lately (who are today’s hottest Hollywood stars under the age of 40? I’m not even sure…). Bollywood too had a powerful star system, especially from the 1970s through the early 2000s: Amitabh Bachchan, Sridevi, Rekha, Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol, Aamir Khan, Salman Khan, etc.

I should point out that film scholars have long classified serious European art films in a national cinemas scheme -- referring to the “Italian school” (neorealism), the “French new wave,” “Russian social realism” and so on. In other film classes taught here at Lehigh, you’d probably be introduced to more of those classic filmmakers.

As Elizabeth Ezra points out in her article, “National Cinemas in the Global Era” (in The Cinema Book) the national cinema concept has changed since the era of globalization emerged in the 1990s. Increasingly, ‘national’ filmmakers might move around from place to place (she gives the example of Ang Lee, a Chinese filmmaker who lives in the U.S. and often makes films focused on American life, in English).

Of course, in its early history there were many foreigners working in Hollywood as well. As Ezra points out in her essay, two of the most famous and influential “American” directors of all time – Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock – were actually British! And there were many other immigrant filmmakers and performers, especially in the silent era. Some of them – Douglas Sirk, Fritz Lang -- were Germans who fled from the Nazis. Others, like Ernst Lubitsch, moved here for other reasons. Most of these directors were influential before 1945. In the period between 1945 and the 1990s, Hollywood became significantly more homogenous, with fewer and fewer foreigners.

Is Hollywood becoming more International/Global?

That began to change with the emergence of people like Taiwan-born Ang Lee (who had a big mainstream breakthrough in the American market with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon [2000]), and a group of important Mexican directors, especially Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron.

Recent Best Picture winners – for films directed by people who are neither British nor American at the Academy Awards include:

  • Bong Joon-Ho: for Parasite
  • Guillermo del toro, for The Shape of Water (2018)
  • Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for Birdman (2015).
  • Alfonso Cuaron has won best director twice in recent years, for Roma (2019) and Gravity (2014). Gravity was in English, with big stars (George Clooney & Sandra Bullock), but Roma was in Spanish & filmed in Mexico.
  • Ang Lee won best director in 2013 for Life of Pi and in 2006 for Brokeback Mountain.

Despite the growing trend towards inclusion of international filmmakers, film critics and scholars generally believe that the Academy Awards should be understood as oriented to the American national film industry. International films (until 2020) have been mostly evaluated under the “Foreign Films” category (that category has now been changed to “International Films!).

 Another big complication to the national cinema concept is the dispersal of funding sources for films. If a film is funded by producers in three different countries, which country ‘made’ the film? In 2009, Mira Nair made a film about the impact of 9/11 on a Muslim immigrant in New York called The Reluctant Fundamentalist. The film starts out in NYC, but then the second half is in Pakistan (though Nair filmed it in India). The film as a whole was funded by a funding agency in Abu Dhabi. Is it an American film, a Pakistani film, an Abu Dhabian film, or an Indian film (since the director is Indian)?

It’s important to look at the funding sources that are mentioned at the beginnings of films to get an idea of who paid for the film. One place where this becomes an issue will be with a film like Rafiki. That film was made in Kenya, about Kenyan people, but it was largely funded by European funding agencies. It’s still clearly a “Kenyan” film, but isn’t it possible that foreign funding had an impact on the way the filmmaker approached her story?