Cover of "The Oxford History of World Cin...

Cover of The Oxford History of World Cinema

The concept of “world cinema” has recently proved a site of heated argument and debate, having been conceptualized in various and sometimes opposing ways. The main criticism is that for a long time “world cinema” functioned as a perfunctory, contradictory and catch-all term: it can be used to refer either to all non-Hollywood, non-UK, non-European films, from the most mainstream to the most experimental, or specifically to Third World non-mainstream cinemas that embody alternative approaches to film content or style, or it can simply stand for a global cinema that embraces all films. This essay will discuss the various ways of theorising world cinema and the assumptions behind them, focusing in particular on Dennison & Lim’s introduction to their edited book Remapping World Cinema (2006).

Considering the astonishing variety of filmmaking practices, styles, traditions and genres that have developed globally since the beginning of cinema, the difficulty of finding a theoretical model to account for all of them is understandable. Also, it was not until the mid 1980s that the journal Screen began to approach questions arising from the “seemingly recent discovery of “otherness” with regard to film practice and theory” (Crusz 1985: 152). Previously to this, only two books i.e. Teshome Gabriel’s 1982 Third Cinema in the Third World and Michael Chanan’s 1983 Twenty-Five Years of the New Latin American Cinema succeeded in raising awareness of theories of cinema that had not originated with an US/European context. Thus, in their introductory chapter “Situating world cinema as a theoretical problem”, Dennison & Lim draw on the works and insights of several film scholars who grappled with the issue and helped to shed light on this matter: Teshome Gabriel, Shohat and Stam’s 1994 book Unthinking Eurocentrism, Nowell-Smith’s 1996 Oxford History of World Cinema, Chapman’s Cinemas of the World: Film and Society from 1895 to the Present (2003), as well as various articles by Dissanayake, Roberts, Guneratne among others.

Although Dennison & Lim start by asking the question “What is world cinema?” they do not set out to give any definitive answers. Instead they propose to explore the processes of its various conceptualizations, how these conceptualizations work and how they changed, and most importantly to reveal the tensions, contradictions and power structures embedded within them whilst situating each discourse about world cinema in its own specific context.

For instance, in an Euro-American university context, “world cinema” recalls Goethe’s notion of Weltliteratur, a “world canon” of great cultural texts, valuable windows into foreign worlds. Outside that institutional sphere however, and in its guise as a marketing tool with a twofold promise of both inclusivity and distinctiveness, the concept denotes “a circumscribed space for the circulation and cultural consideration, in the West, of cultural products from non-western, and often non-mainstream or counterhegemonic, national and regional traditions” (Grant & Kuhn 2006:1).

In this respect, Dennison & Lim remark that one of the most obvious problems inherent within the concept of world cinema is the assumption that the “world” actually signifies “the world as viewed from the West”. Similarly to other broad categories such as “world music” and “world literature”, world cinema is a label created in the West to refer to non-Western cultural products and practices. A slight variation of this definition posits world cinema as specifically non-Hollywood cinema. Concerning this, the authors agree that, given the economic and cultural dominance of Hollywood cinema from the end of World War I onwards, the tendency to oppose world cinema against Hollywood or US cinema is understandable to an extent. The American film industry played such a dominant role that, it can be argued, cinemas in other countries consisted of attempts to compete or differentiate themselves from the American model.

Leaving aside this rationale, the assumptions behind the definition of world cinema as non-Western/non-Hollywood cinema are highly problematic for several reasons: 1) they fail to take into account the great diversity of other cinemas or the different historical trajectories of their origins and developments; 2) they take for granted the centrality of Hollywood as setting the standard against which all other cinemas must define themselves (US-centric position); 3) they disregard the diversity and complexity of cinema within the US itself (e.g. the independent, underground and avant-garde US cinemas); 4) they provide a negative definition, referring to world cinema in terms of what it is not rather than what it is, an issue also taken up by Lucia Nagib in “Towards a Positive definition of World Cinema” (2006:30-37). Moreover, the label “world” can sometimes be used in an almost derogatory way. Referring to “world music”, David Byrne argues that the concept is often used as “a way of dismissing artists […] as irrelevant to one’s own life”, as a way of grouping works into “us” and “them” (Byrne 1999 quoted in Dennison & Lim 2006:3).

Overall, the most ardent criticism against this definition lies in its US-centrism. Although it is true that as a consequence of colonialism and neo-imperialism, both the UK and US have the tendency to locate themselves at the centre and thus see “the world” as the rest of the globe, this attitude betrays however the assumption of Western cultural hegemony, relegating non-Western cultures to a position of resistance or merely “ghettos” and leading to essentialised notions of both the West and the non-West, which, in the era of globalization, are becoming increasingly untenable. Acknowledging these problems, Dennison & Lim draw attention to the necessity to de-centre US domination and to challenge its hegemony.

Concerning the idea of resistance, a specific issue in world cinema is that pertaining to the notion of Third Cinema, the most prominent theory that originated outside the US/European context. Coined in 1969 by Argentine filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, Third Cinema is an aesthetic and political project that is revolutionary and militant in origin, nature and intent. According to its proponents, Hollywood, with its bourgeois values of consumption and industrialism, constitutes First Cinema; the auteur cinema of the nouvelle vague or cinema novo demonstrating aesthetic but not always political innovation represents Second Cinema; whereas Third Cinema is a tri-continental (Asia, Africa and Latin-America) response to social injustice and post-imperialism that takes a radically different approach to filmmaking, being a cinema of liberation whose aim is to make films “that directly and explicitly set out to fight the system” (Solanas and Getino 1997 quoted in Dennison & Lim 2006:5). By embracing revolutionary ideals and subverting cinematic codes, Third Cinema films question and challenge the structures of power and oppression in the world, be they related to class, race, ethnicity, gender or religion. One of its principle goals is to educate its audiences and increase social consciousness by combating the passive film-watching experience of commercial cinema, by challenging viewers with new compositional structures and genre juxtaposition. In African cinema for example, Sembene’s films are considered “liberating art”, carrying strong political and moral messages (Magombe 1996 in Nowell-Smith ed. 1996:669). Ceddo was considered offensive by the Senegalese government and banned for eight years. Another of his films, La Noire de…(Black Girl, 1966) was restricted and suppressed by the French Ministry of Co-operation due to its subject matter, the exploitation of black migrants. This draws attention to the power mechanisms affecting world cinema, the political implications of filmmaking in Third World countries as well as to their constant struggle to “decolonize thought” (Barlet 1996:34).

Writing extensively on Third Cinema, Teshome Gabriel defines it as a cinema that contributes to a “decolonization of the mind” (1982: 3) whereas Anthony Guneratne expands it to include First World-based directors “who address the very issues of First World dominance and Third World abjection” (2003: 14). The Battle of Algiers (1966) by the Italian Gillo Pontecorvo is a classic example. This inclusion echoes Rey Chow’s notion of a “mediating apparatus” between the powerful and the powerless (1993). Along the same lines, Ella Shohat and Robert Stam call for a polycentric filmmaking, arguing that Third Cinema is not a monolithic category but one with overlapping circles of denotation. In this respect, Costa-Gavras’ films State of Siege and Missing are relevant for focusing on the authoritarian governments that ruled much of Latin America during the height of the Cold War, Gavras being known for merging controversial political issues with the entertainment value of commercial cinema.

Apart from the non-Western/non-Hollywood and Third cinema models, another way of conceiving world cinema is as the sum total of all the national cinemas in the world. For example, some contemporary critics refer to Iran as the world’s most important national cinema, with an artistic significance that invites comparison to Italian neorealism (Tapper 2002). In his book Close Up: Iranian Cinema, Past, Present, Future (2001)  Dabashi describes modern Iranian cinema and the phenomenon of [Iranian] national cinema as a form of cultural modernity. With its distinct style, themes, cultural references and idea of nationhood, post-revolutionary Iranian cinema has been celebrated in many international festivals. Films such as Taste of Cherry and Ten by Abbas Kiarostami, The Circle and Crimson Gold by Jafar Panahi, as well as the increasing amount of works by women filmmakers e.g. The Apple, At Five in the Afternoon by Samira Makhmalbaf, the May Lady, Our Times by Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, placed Iranian cinema firmly on the map of world cinema.

Conceiving world cinema is as the sum total of all the national cinemas in the world is however equally problematic because, as Dennison & Lim cogently argue, it denies the possibility of other ways of organising the world (e.g. by gender, sexuality, economic power) and it also risks overlooking other modes of film practices (e.g. feminist cinema, queer cinema, regional, sub-state, diasporic, nomadic cinema etc). Moreover, essentialist conceptions of the nation-state and national identity have become increasingly problematised in the recent decades. Due to the accelerated transnational flows of people, technology, finance, media images and ideologies taking place worldwide, it is difficult to conceive of nation-states as retaining the political, cultural and economic autonomy and unity that they generally enjoyed prior to 1945.

Stephen Crofts, for instance, questions the putative national spirit that had been ascribed to national cinemas until the 1980s, arguing for the constructedness of the “imagined community” (1998:385). Based on criteria such as types of production, distribution and exhibition, audiences, discourses, textuality, national-cultural specificity, Crofts distinguishes between eight varieties of nation-state cinema: 1) United States cinema, including the recent medium-budget “independent” films; 2) Asian commercial successes e.g. Indian, Japanese, Hong-Kong cinemas; 3) other entertainment cinemas e.g. European and Third World commercial cinemas which adopt genres such as melodrama, thriller and comedy; 4) Totalitarian cinemas e.g. those of fascist Germany and Italy, communist China, the Soviet Union; 5) art cinemas; 6) international co-productions; 7) Third Cinema in its original anti-imperialist sense but expanded to include films with “a historically analytic yet culturally specific mode of cinematic discourse” (Willemen 1987:8); 7) sub-state cinemas, ethnically defined as indigenous or diasporic populations giving expression to their distinctive cultures e.g. Catalan, Quebeqois, Welsh cinemas (Crofts 1998:390).

Thus, if in the past national labels promised varieties of “otherness” as a marketing strategy, at the current moment in time, film producers are intensifying their search for multiple international markets which automatically implies increased homogeneity in nation-state film production. Moreover, film is now no longer a separate art but belongs to an enormous multinational system of TV networks, internet, international co-productions, being part of the digital convergence with other media (Chaudhuri 2005: 2). With the dissolving of the entrenched national boundaries of cinematic tradition comes the possibility of finding alternative criteria for discerning and inscribing identity. In an attempt to conceptualise cinema beyond the nation-state, terms such as transnational, transvergent and accented cinema (Naficy 2001) have been employed. One such example of transnational cinema that challenges the established understanding of cinemas as national constructs is Michael Winterbottom’s The Road to Guantanamo (2006), a co-production financed by transnational capital, using multiple languages and locations and offering alternative parameters of identity. Similarly, City of God (2002) by Fernando Mireilles is a film that combines a very specific theme of Brazilian society, life in the favelas, with MTV-style editing and visuals, making it into an international box-office hit that no one expected, the director having had to finance the film himself.  If we compare these with a film such as Vodka Lemon, a 2003 French production depicting life in a small village in Kurdistan and directed by Hiner Saleem, a Kurdish film director living in France, the difference cannot be greater. It is this wide range of works and filmmaking options available nowadays, brought about not only by the increasing internationalisation of film production but also by its emergent constituents (cinemas that have received little critical attention until now) that calls for a totally new configuration of world cinema.

Moreover, in a discussion of world cinema, the film-viewing subject also needs to be taken into consideration. In our age of globalization and increased migration, the spectator can no longer be regarded as a homogenous entity. Also the main sites of exhibition (world cities, international film festivals) have become hybrid and plural spaces so that the older dichotomies between West and non-West, self and the other are beginning to disappear. Thus, the authors see the necessity to move beyond narrow dichotomies and prejudices (West/non-West, oppression/resistance, popularity/integrity) and pay more attention to the interconnectedness of cinematic practices in the age of globalisation. Consequently they propose that world cinema be reconceptualised in terms of “hybridity, transculturation, border crossing, transnationalism and translation” (Dennison & Lim 2006:6) and be regarded separately as a discipline, a methodology and a perspective. Writing on methodology, Dudley Andrew suggests that any study of world cinema “should put students inside unfamiliar conditions of viewing” (2004:9). His conceptualisation of world cinema is informed by a “world systems” theory as the basis for an “atlas of the world cinema” divided according to five main perspectives: political, demographic, linguistic, “orientation”, topographical. Regarding perspective, a crucial question needs to be asked: “from whence do we view, visualise and theorise world cinema?” Considering that one’s perspective may also limit one’s view, there is a need to adopt a different or even multiple perspectives.

Dennison & Lim also draw attention to the need to increase the interest and exposure of the English-speaking audience to other cultural forms. Nevertheless mere exposure and even consumption of non-Western cultural products does not  guarantee greater cross-cultural understanding as they sometimes serve only “to reinforce one’s identity vis-à-vis, or one’s stereotypical image of, an Other by virtue of the latter’s pre-packaged, ready-to-consume, exotic quality” (Dennison & Lim 2006:4).

This leads to the question of who decides what films should be distributed internationally under the “world cinema” label? Writing about the relationship between the source culture and the host culture, David Damrosch remarks that “a work changes in nature when it moves from a national sphere to a new worldly context” (2003:9-14) and that its reception always depends on the needs and values of the host cultural environment. Thus the foreign work becomes “the locus of a negotiation between two different cultures” (Damrosch 2003:9-14), a negotiation which is highly unequal considering the paramount necessity that the host culture recognize and confer prestige on the work in question in order for it to rise from obscurity and achieve any meaningful cultural importance. For example, it is well-known that non-Western films become of interest internationally when they challenge the notion of cultural uniformity implied by globalization and especially when they adopt a different aesthetic model of filmmaking from Hollywood. Awareness of this on the part of the filmmakers can however backfire as they are often accused of “self-exoticisation and courting controversy in their bids to attain global recognition” (Dennison & Lim 2006:3). All these cultural and ideological issues as well as purely economical ones such as marketing and distribution problems at the site of exhibition, the market forces of demand and supply, help to unravel the complicated web of power relations at the core of the definition and meaning of world cinema.

The Birkbeck course in World Cinema, with its four case studies based on African, Iranian, Latin American and Indian cinemas and the particular choice of texts for analysis, offers a wide perspective over world cinema, combining different and sometimes conflicting cultural representations of “otherness” from both inside and outside those cinemas. Concerning African cinema for instance, very early representations of Africa by Western filmmakers such as Stampede (Chaplin & Stella Court Treatt, 1929) that aim at exoticization are contrasted with indigenous efforts at self-representation and the quest for an original cinematic language e.g. Yaaba (Idrissa Ouedraogo, 1989), Ceddo (Ousmane Sembene 1976), Mooladé (Ousmane Sembene, 2004), films that capture African life, traditions and culture using an entirely different filmmaking style (slow-paced editing, contemplative, well-framed shots) and employ original narrative devices e.g the use of the Griot as an uninvolved narrator.

For Dennison & Lim defining world cinema is a work in progress that needs to answer multiple questions and adopt multiple perspectives. Defining non-Western cinemas as “sites of discursive contestations” and “representational spaces in which changing social and cultural meanings are generated and fought over”, Dissanayake (1998:5) points to the fact that world cinema is not the expression of some eternal essence; on the contrary, its products are constantly changing and renewing themselves. This is also the view adopted in one of the most prestigious works on the subject, Nowell-Smith’s Oxford History of World Cinema, a book that avoids the old dichotomy West/non-West, being structured instead according to the most important technological and aesthetic developments in cinema from a global perspective (Silent Cinema, Sound Cinema, The Modern Cinema), promising to “tell the story of many different cinemas, growing in different parts of the world and asserting their right to independent existence often in defiance of the forces attempting to exercise control and to “open up” the market on a global scale” (Nowell-Smith 1996:xx). While taking into account the variety of cultural and political contexts in which the world’s cinemas have emerged, the book also draws attention to the interlocking character of the many aspects of cinema in different places and at different times, the way they influenced and inspired each other.

It can thus be concluded that the definition of world cinema is as much an issue for film theory as it is a matter of political correctness in relation to which, if we are to judge from the recent titles of books and articles on the subject, a lot of re-thinking, re-conceptualising and re-configuring is involved. Considering the transnational aspects of the film medium in the 21st century, its international interdependence and interconnectedness, a positive, inclusive, democratic definition would posit world cinema as being simply the cinema of the world, without a centre, without the binary divide into “them” and “us”, a method of cutting across film history according to waves of relevant films and cinematic movements, and also a method that allows all sorts of theoretical approaches. At the current moment in time, because of increased migration and globalisation, perspectives interpenetrate and subjectivity and identity are hybrid and multiple, therefore Dennison & Lim’s notions of transculturation and border-crossing, as well as their politics of inclusiveness and multiple perspectives are increasingly relevant to the study of world cinema.


Andrew, D. (2004) “An Atlas of World Cinema”, Framework, vol. 45, no.2, pp. 9-23. A version of this article also appears in Dennison, S. & S. H. Lim (2006) Remapping World Cinema: Identity, Culture and Politics in Film, London: Wallflower Press

Barlet, O. (1996) African Cinemas. Decolonizing the Gaze, Zed Books, London & New York

Chaudhuri, S.(2005)  Contemporary World Cinema: Europe, the Middle East, East Asia and South Asia, Edinburgh University Press

Chow, R. (1993)  Writing Diaspora: Tactics of Intervention in Contemporary Cultural Studies. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press

Crofts, S. (1998) “Concepts of National Cinemas” in The Oxford Guide to Film Studies, eds. J. Hill & P. Church Gibson, Oxford University Press

Crusz, R. (1985) “Black cinemas, film theory and dependent knowledge”, Screen, vol. 26, nos. 3-4, pp. 152-6

Dabashi, H. (2001) Close Up: Iranian Cinema, Past, Present, Future, Verso

Damrosch, D. (2003) “What is World Literature”, World Literature Today, 77, 1, 9-14

Dennison, S. & S. H. Lim (eds) (2006) Remapping World Cinema: Identity, Culture and Politics in Film, London: Wallflower Press

Dissanayake, W. (1998) “Issues in World Cinema” in The Oxford Guide to Film Studies, eds. J. Hill & P. Church Gibson, Oxford University Press

Gabriel, T. (1982) Third Cinema in the Third World: The Aesthetics of Liberation. Ann  Arbor, MI: UMI research Press

Grant, C. & A. Kuhn (eds) (2006) Screening World Cinema: A Screen Reader, Routledge, London and New York

Guneratne, A. (2003) “Introduction: Rethinking World Cinema” in A. R. Guneratne & W. Dissanayake (eds) Rethinking Third Cinema,  Routledge, London and New York pp 1-28

Hallam, E. & B. V. Street (eds) (2000) Cultural Encounters: Representing “Otherness”, Routledge, London and New York

Hill, J. & P. Church Gibson (eds) (1998) The Oxford Guide to Film Studies, Oxford University Press

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

Nagib, L.( 2006) “Towards a Positive definition of World Cinema” in Remapping World Cinema: Identity, Culture and Politics in Film, London: Wallflower Press, pp 30-37

Nowell-Smith, G. (1996) The Oxford History of World Cinema, Oxford University Press

Pines, J. & P. Willemen (eds) (1989) Questions of Third Cinema, BFI

Willemen, P. (1987) “The Third Cinema Question: Notes and Reflections”, Framework, 34:4-38)

Shohat, E. & R. Stam (1994) Unthinking Eurocentrism, Routledge, London and New York

Tapper, R. (ed) (2002) The New Iranian Cinema:Politics, Representation and Identity, I B Tauris


The Apple (Samira Makhmalbaf, 1998)

At Five in the Afternoon (Samira Makhmalbaf, 2003)

The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)

Blackboards (Samira Makhmalbaf, 2000)

Ceddo (Ousmane Sembene 1976)

The Circle (Jafar Panahi, 2000)

City of God (Fernando Mireilles, 2002)

Crimson Gold (Jafar Panahi, 2003)

The May Lady (Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, 1998)

Missing (Costa-Gavras, 1982)

Mooladé (Ousmane Sembene, 2004)

Our Times (Rakhshan Bani-Etemad,  2002)

The Road to Guantanamo (Michael Winterbottom, 2006)

Stampede (Chaplin & Stella Court Treatt, 1929)

State of Siege (Costa-Gavras, 1972)

Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami , 1997)

Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2002)

Vodka Lemon (Hiner Saleem, 2003)

Yaaba (Idrissa Ouedraogo, 1989)


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