Colonialism and Postcolonialism


Just as there is a great degree of continuity both economically and culturally between the colonial and postcolonial periods, so have certain industrial precedents and representational conventions persisted, even in the wake of the myriad decolonization struggles and countercultural political movements of the mid- and late-twentieth century. First, Hollywood's domination of the international film market, the origins of which can be traced to World War I, became more pronounced after 1947, when India's achievement of independence set the postcolonial era in motion. As a result, contemporary American blockbusters can be assured a captive audience in all corners of the globe. Yet even in the face of such competition, which limits severely the number of screens, both domestic and international, available to directors working in other national (or transnational) contexts, many alternatives to Hollywood exist; in fact, such alternatives seem increasingly more viable given the proliferation of digital technologies that greatly reduce the costs of film production; film festivals and specialty television networks, which supplement traditional exhibition venues; and international co-productions, which allow for input, both financial and aesthetic, from a variety of sources.

Second, while films made in the postcolonial era are typically critical of colonialism to varying degrees, they also quite frequently bear traces of a colonial legacy insofar as they capitulate to certain imperialist tropes and racialized fantasies. For example, since the 1950s the native of ethnographic cinema has become an object of idealization and yearning more than derision and aggression; at the same time, however, the tendency to relegate indigenous cultures to a temporal space outside of history and/or a textual space outside of narrative persists. A most instructive case in point is Walkabout (1971) by Nicolas Roeg (b. 1928), an Australian film by a British director that features a teenaged girl and her little brother who, stranded in the outback, meet an Aboriginal boy in the midst of a walkabout. While the film romanticizes the native boy, offering up his way of life as preferable to the mechanized, gray, and urban existence of its white characters, its trailer makes clear to what extent it is nonetheless invested in a racist model

La Battaglia di Algeria ( The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo, 1965), a powerfully realist depiction of colonialist oppression.
of evolutionary progress when the story is summarized via voice-over: "The Aborigine and the girl—30,000 years apart—together." A concomitant cinematic trend in the postcolonial era has been the representation of the imperialist past in epic films suffused with colonial nostalgia and dedicated, at least in part, to the restitution of colonialism's reputation. Commenting on this trend in 1984, Salman Rushdie described a spate of British productions, including A Passage to India (David Lean, 1984) and Gandhi (Richard Attenborough, 1984), as "the phantom twitchings of an amputated limb" (p. 92). In many late twentieth-century films that met with overwhelming critical and popular success, the tendency to romanticize the native and to offer up a kinder, gentler version of colonialism worked in tandem. For example, it is precisely their association with a colonized culture that is closer to nature and thus less corrupted and inhibited than that of their white counterparts that redeems certain white characters as well as the colonizing culture with which they are associated in Out of Africa (Sydney Pollack, 1985), Indochine ( Indochina , Régis Wargnier, 1992), and The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993).

Indeed, film plays a significant role in neocolonialism just as it did in colonialism decades ago; at the same time, however, the postcolonial era has produced many powerful films, filmmakers, national cinemas, and film movements, which creatively confront the past, ponder the present, and give voice to perspectives that are under-represented in the cinema discussed thus far. A pivotal film in this regard is La Battaglia di Algeria ( The Battle of Algiers , 1965), a film about the Algerian War (1954–1962) by Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo (b. 1919). While the film is remarkable for its even-handed approach to the conflict, its gritty realist aesthetic, and its representation of women as active revolutionaries, what is most striking is how singular it was at the time of its release. Despite the fact that a large percentage of the French population did not support the response of its government to Algerian insurgency, films made in France during the conflict did not prove a site of significant dissent or critique. Only the occasional film even acknowledged the war by making oblique reference to it, and the one film that did attempt to represent the event directly in order to explore the amorality of torture, Le Petit soldat ( The Little Soldier , Jean-Luc Godard, 1963), was banned from French screens for several years. It took an outsider to provide a frank account of the watershed events that ultimately led to Algeria's political autonomy and thus to produce what has come to be regarded, despite the number of subsequent films with the same narrative agenda, as the definitive anticolonial film.

The Battle of Algiers is an exemplary representation of resistance made in the postcolonial era, but equally revolutionary are the many resistant representations that have been produced by "Third," "Fourth," and "First" World filmmakers alike during the later half of the twentieth century and the turn of the twenty-first. These representations are extremely varied in form, encompassing everything from the "aesthetics of hunger" promoted by the Brazilian Cinema Novo movement in the 1960s to the high production values and lavish spectacles of Bollywood musicals, from the Brechtian-infused realism of Ousmane Sembene (b. 1923; Senegal) and Cheick Oumar Sissoko (b. 1945; Mali) to the genre defying experimentation of Trinh T. Minh-ha Trinh (b. 1953; Vietnamese American), and Tracey Moffatt (b. 1960; Australian Aboriginal). Furthermore, these filmmakers examine a wide array of subjects. While films like Como Era Gostoso Meu Francêes ( How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman , Nelson Pereira dos Santos, 1971) and Surviving Columbus (George Burdeau, 1990) engage with the colonial past by revisiting its primal scene in order to rewrite the "discovery" narrative, others do so by focusing on the possibilities and pitfalls that emerge in its aftermath, such as Chinese Box (Wayne Wang, 1997). Still others, particularly the output of Fourth World filmmakers, reveal a colonial present that often escapes notice, such as in Once Were Warriors (Lee Tamahori, 1994).

It is impossible to account for the diversity of postcolonial cinema in short form. Nonetheless, as varied as these resistant representations are, one quality unites them: the potential to provide an experience contrary to that described by Franz Fanon (1925–1961) in his book Black Skin, White Masks (1967). Explaining the means by which imperialism impacts the psychological as well as the political life of the colonized in Africa, thereby producing a society of self-alienated subjects, he offers the example of a black schoolboy who, upon attending a Tarzan film with his friends, readily identifies with the only character whom both colonial society at large and that text in particular empower: the white hero. In other words, what these films have in common is an investment in a diversity of celluloid heroes and a propensity to imbue with depth characters that have historically been rendered in superficial fashion. They create a vision at odds with that reproduced in and through the type of dominant cinema that Fanon invoked and that allowed for the emergence of what Robert Stam and Ella Shohat define as "polycentric multiculturalism," a political ideal wherein "no single community or part of the world, whatever its economic or political power, should be epistemologically privileged" ( Unthinking Eurocentricism , p.48).

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Fanon, Franz. Black Skin, White Masks . Translated by Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove, 1967. Translation of Peau noire, masques blancs (1967).

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Sherzer, Dina, ed. Cinema, Colonialism, Postcolonialism: Perspectives from the French and Francophone Worlds . Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.

Shohat, Ella, and Robert Stam. Unthinking Eurocentricism: Multiculturalism and the Media . New York: Routledge, 1994.

Stam, Robert, and Louise Spence. "Colonialism, Racism, and Representation." Screen 24, no. 2 (March–April 1983): 2–20.

Corinn Columpar

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