Volume 1 - Issue 2 - Editorial

By Vertigo

Does it matter that a new hamburger joint in London’s West End called Planet Hollywood should create more of a stir that the rare opening of a new film from China just around the corner? Why is a programme about opposition to the Gulf War in the US only shown on Channel 4 at 11 o’clock at night? Why does the defeat of a presidential coup d’état in Guatemala fail to reach the evening news? What do these questions matter to us, and why do the channel controllers think they don’t?

The present issue includes several articles by people who think these questions are important because a system operating those priorities is dangerously awry. The media misinform people. They give a distorted picture of the world. They also disinform, sometimes by omission or by allowing the release of false information, an art developed by the secret services of superpowers and military states. Noam Chomsky, who has written extensively about disinformation, denies this is a matter of conspiracy, any more than General Motors is involved in a conspiracy to maximise profits: given who it is that owns and/or controls the media, they are merely fulfilling their expectable function in behaving this way, allowing these things to happen.

It is not only information which is at stake, but also entertainment. For this, the dominant agenda is still set by Hollywood, since cinema remains the apogee of the entertainment industry; and although fewer films are produced there compared with 25 years ago, the Hollywood majors’ control of the world market has increased through greater monopoly of distribution. Except now the Hollywood majors are themselves owned by others, including very large amounts of foreign capital (especially Japanese).

The traffic of images

The theme which links these articles is the global traffic of images, which means mainly from North to South. Why be concerned with audiovisual culture in the South when we have problems enough of our own here at home – including how to deal with the dominance of Hollywood? The writers in these pages believe that the questions are related, that no-one, North or South, can any longer talk about their own situation without considering the global context, which plays a determinate role in granting or refusing access to funds and distribution – that is, to audiences. This is hardly news to film-makers in the South, but here in Britain, isolationist as we are and seem to have been for so long, the extent to which our own production is a complicit part of this system is all too easily hidden. Yet this is the market for which our own films – the few that get made – and TV programmes are increasingly tailored. And the more tailored to the global marketplace, the more bland they become.

The North-South dialogue

It is not just the traffic of images which needs questioning, but the very concept of the North-South dialogue. The terminology which this sets out to replace divided the world into three. The thesis of the Three Worlds goes back to the Bandung Conference of 1955, the founding conference of the Non-Aligned Movement, where it was promulgated by China. The First World they identified with the advanced capitalist countries of the West, including North America and Australasia. The Second World comprised the Soviet Union and the socialist countries of Eastern Europe. The countries of the remaining continents were thus the Third World, to which China declared its allegiance. The whole idea was therefore implicitly critical of what it described. If it now seems awkward, not because the countries of the Third World have experienced any kind of transformation but because the Second World has collapsed, then the terminology of North and South is problematic because it originated in the North, in the Brandt Report of 1980.

Pigeonholed at the time by the media as the idealism of elder statesmen, the Brandt Report made a strong argument for the advance industrial nations mainly grouped in the North to treat the impoverished countries mostly in the South according to more principles, if only in their own interests, since otherwise planetary disaster would be inevitable. The new terminology did not acquire greater currency till the collapse of the Communist empire – it is not to be found in a standard dictionary politics published in 1985, the year of Perestroika – and then it suffered a subtle shift. Now aligned with the project to construct a New World Order (which George Bush stole from Mikhail Gorbachev), these apparently neutral geographical categories, which carried with them the appeal to dialogue and co-operation, now served to hide and distort the reality yet again. As an analytical construct the terms empty out inherent contradictions and are therefore not particularly well disposed to addressing them.

The truth is that as viewers we are subjected to, and as producers we become implicated in, a set of power relations which are as difficult to avoid as they are to grasp. The global dimensions of this power relation are laid out very clearly in the article by Armand Mattelart, the Paris-based Belgian sociologist who was advisor on mass communications to the Chilean President Salvador Allende until the coup d’étatí of 1973. There follow a number of pieces which treat of various different aspects of the theme.

We are especially pleased to be publishing a polemic by Cuban film-maker Julio García Espinosa. In ‘The Double Morality of Cinema’ he writes about the present within a perspective that goes back to the 60s, when Espinosa first became known beyond his native Cuba through a much – reprinted polemic called ‘For An Imperfect Cinema’. There he argued for the primacy of both content and mode of address over finish and, although much misunderstood, his arguments impressed a good many film-makers across three – no, five – continents. In the new piece, he analyses the problem of achieving – in the face of falsely seductive technologies, negative dramaturgy, implacable structures which block the circulation of ideas – an authentic popular cinema, a cinema which instead of spoon-feeding audiences with ideological pap, expresses real popular values.

The problem of otherness

Espinosa insists that there are other cinemas, other films, which change our perception not just of cinema but of the world, transforming our consciousness of the way the screen reflects, represents, relates to reality, therefore changing our perception of reality as well. It’s no accident that Third World film-makers of Espinosa’s generation had precisely this effect in the First World when they came up with films like Glauber Rocha’s Black God, White Devil, Tomás Gutierrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment, Sembène’s Black Girl. The pull of this other cinema, beyond the imperative for solidarity with the underprivileged, was its very otherness. It answered to a need increasingly felt in the West, to discover and recognise ourselves in the other in order to achieve any degree of self-knowledge. And in these films, given their freedom from the restrictive models of the commercial mainstream, their otherness also challenged our aesthetics, our sense of how film worked.

This problem is not symmetrical. That is, the problem of otherness for those who are other to ourselves (whoever we are) is not the same problem. The otherness of Hollywood to the cinema-goer in Burkina Faso is not something waiting to be discovered, but all too familiar.

Sometimes a handful of films can surface and achieve significant recognition for a distant country, at least in the art-house circuit. This is the way we experienced Japan in the 60s, and today it’s the turn of China. All too often, however, these remain momentary episodes in the history of cinema as it is seen in the West and taught in schools and colleges. At the same time, this sense of film history has altered over the past 25 years, as cinema has contracted and TV and video grown. Twenty-five years ago the aficionado audience discovered world cinema exclusively on the big screen and almost wholly in their leisure time, for there was precious little teaching about it. Today there are school examinations and college courses by the dozen, but the historical horizons of the student have narrowed. Why? Partly because most film viewing is now done on the small screen, and the exclusion from TV and video distribution of films from most of the world is disastrous. There has been a huge explosion of images and imagery in the last 50 years, but the more this onslaught of visions, the less we are allowed to see, and partly, the less we seem able to see.

This condition is nowadays readily identified with postmodernism, but the effect is much older. According to Walter Benjamin, the new principles of journalism brought about by the electric telegraph 150 years ago – brevity, comprehensibility and freshness – also gave the reader the impression of easily assimilating the information presented, but in fact had quite the opposite effect: they managed to ‘isolate what happens from the realm in which it could affect the experience of the reader’. When photographs found their way into print and a new kind of magazine appeared, the result was a world that in its very modernity became increasingly fragmented and illusory. As Siegfried Kracauer put it: ‘In the illustrated magazines the public sees the world whose perception of it is hindered by the illustrated journals themselves.’

But the nature of the problem changes with time and history. It has now come home to the North (or in another terminology, the West) since (in another terminology again) the Third World is not out there, but present in the ghettos of the First World. Nor have the previous problems gone away just because the world has been turning on its axis, the Communist empire has collapsed and the West, believing it has won the Cold War, has pronounced the installation of a New World Order (which already looks shabby and tattered). History does not disappear like this, however elusive and invisible to the camera. Like otherness, it is part of ourselves, and it calls for recognition.

Chinese White

George Szirtes

Do you remember the scene in Ashes and Diamonds where
the hero rushes forward through the clotheslines and bleeds
to death among the sheets? Or was it
in Canal (I can’t remember now.) A square
of white turns slowly red. The redness fades
to black and white. The picture is a composite, 

a form of poster. The War, the Resistance,
something about betrayal, all mixed up
in a child’s mind who didn’t see
the war, for whom it is a haunting presence
of sheets and blood. An image hangs and drops
in a grey passageway or alley.

His name was Zbigniew, and he wore dark glasses,
and later he jumped from a train (a true life fact)
because, well, Poles are like that,
they get drunk, morose, et cetera. The girl who kisses
the boy was blonde as always. Was it an act of bravery him getting shot
or cowardice? We could look it up in books
but that is not the point (we pull our serious face)
but something in the falling, the how
and where of it. And so whenever one looks
the same old images return and find their place,
a square, an alleyway, a row

of ordinary houses suddenly still and hot
and people falling lying as if on a square
of film. You see the victim’s head
as someone aims and shots him, and you can cut
to tanks or bodies or a sheet hung out to air,
a white square slowly turning red.

from Bridge Passages (OUP, 1991)