Cinemas and Culture. Discussion of Readings and Films

The reading, ‘Culture and Communications’ by O’Connor and Downing (1995) was really fascinating to me. Culture as a phenomenon has always existed since time immemorial and it is one aspect of life that never stops to amaze me. This is because the world is made up of different communities and groups of people having different cultures. Different cultures also exist in one given country and one given community. Culture is one of the reasons behind the high level of insecurity that characterizes today’s world. Culture breeds ethnocentrism in which individuals and groups from one culture view their culture to be superior to other peoples’ cultures (O’Connor and Downing 1995). Such misconceptions drive people to do all they can to maintain their views. Take the United States, for instance. The US believes it is the world’s greatest superpower. Hence any actual or perceived threats to its hegemony from other states often stirs excessive counter-reactions (think of the damage done by the US to Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries of the Middle East).

Chow’s article was also appealing to me since I am a big fan of films. In the article, Chow cements one of my long-held beliefs about films. This is the belief that the meanings that people derive from one particular film differ significantly from one viewer to another. This has occurred to me many times when I watch a film with friends and family and yet at the end of the film people will interpret the meanings of that film in a totally different manner. This difference results from the different information and cultural backgrounds that people have which will prompt them to analyze a film through their own world of understanding (Said 1992).

Ousmane Sembene is one of the most widely acclaimed indigenous filmmakers. He has so far directed twelve popular films that mainly focus on the historical and cultural aspects of African societies. Sembene’s films do not only communicate political messages concerning African societies but are also a source of entertainment through humor and satire. Before venturing into the filmmaking industry, Sembane educated himself, held a number of jobs and traveled around the globe. Sembene’s work is normally divided into three distinct eras: 1962-70; 1971-76; and end of 1970s to 1980s. In the first era, Sembene used short compositions to make films that touched on African societies. The second era of Sembene’s filmmaking career is widely acknowledged to be his most creative era. It was during this era that Sembene produced the famous film, ‘Xela.’ The last era of his filmmaking career was full of long breaks from filmmaking. One of the aspects that stand out from Sembene’s films is his contempt for colonialism and imperialism. This is due to the social ills that most African societies are forced to endure as a result of the fruits of colonialism. The issue of colonialism is also intertwined with the issue of gender especially in Sembene’s last films such as Faat Kine and Moolaade. In Faat Kine, for instance, Sembene portrays women as successful, having finally overcome the obstacles that the paternalistic African society had placed in their way. This is actually a reflection of today’s society in which women have turned away from their home-keeping and child-rearing roles and have instead embraced professional careers which enable them to put bread on the table just like men (Murphy and Williams 2007, p.57).

The reading ‘From Eurocentrism to Polycentrism’ by Sholat and Stam (1994) is a reading that mainly focuses on racism. It talks of the root cause of majority and minority groups. These two groups were created through colonization in which societies that viewed their cultures as superior oppressed and humiliated other societies which they believed were inferior. This is very common in the West in which the so-called ethnic superior groups such as White and Euro-Americans undermine the so-called ethnic minority groups such as African Americans and Hispanic Americans. This superior-inferior division of cultures is the reason behind racial profiling and other social ills that are perpetrated against innocent and law-abiding civilians in the West on a daily basis. Why should a person be suspected and arrested for a crime he did not commit just because he is black or a Muslim? Ethnocentrism is the answer to this heartbreaking question.

The film Keita (1995) was also interesting to me because it mirrors the happenings of today’s world. Individuals, groups and nations at large go to a great and painful extent in an effort to dissociate themselves from their past. This they do forgetting that they are who/what they are because of their histories. This trend is evident today particularly in the name of civilization and globalization. Countries have abandoned their traditional cultures and values and have instead taken on the cultures and values of other nations – the so-called civilized nations of the West. A good example of this is the adoption of information technology by developing countries. As a result, developing countries have abandoned important and viable activities such as agriculture and have replaced them with IT. This is the reason why many people in such countries are dying of hunger despite having abundant and fertile agricultural lands.

The film Clando (1996) was fascinating and helped the viewers to understand how colonialism inflicted great injustices on the colonized people. Even two or more decades after the end of colonization, a great majority of countries have been unable to free themselves from the injustices that were caused. However, many people in such countries make a great effort in trying to free themselves from such injustices which are the root cause of the social ills that continue to plague the countries. This daily struggle is illustrated through Anatole whose mindset in the film is constantly changing. By watching the film, and particularly following Anatole’s changing mindset, many viewers can easily relate it with their situations or situations that happen in countries that were once colonized. However, the change that so many people desire cannot be realized unless members of the whole community and nation come together as one to make it happen.

The reading ‘Sex and Inequality’ by Young (1995) is also a good piece on how racism can inflict injustices on innocent human beings. Social ills such as racial profiling and slavery result from ethnocentrism in which one group of people sees another group of people be inferior only because of their skin color or the language they speak. Such misplaced perceptions have been used time and again to justify the harassment of people considered to be of lower cultures, for instance, the enslavement and desegregation of the blacks in the US (Young 1995).

Some film directors normally produce films about people or communities that are entirely contradictory to their ways of life. One film director who has refused to adopt this style is Barry Barclay. In his film Ngati (1978) Barclay shows that respecting people and their cultures is one important strategy of producing successful indigenous films. The film director gives an example of the different dialogue styles used by two different communities: Maori and Pakeha. In the Maori community, people converse in an organized manner: from one person to another, without disruptions. When one person talks the others listen attentively while waiting for their turn. This is different from the Pakehas. Hence while making a film about the Maoris the film should reflect Maori’s way of life and not Pakeha’s. This should apply to all indigenous films but unfortunately it is not the case. For instance, it is common to watch a Nigerian film whose characters deviate from their traditional norms and instead adopt the Western culture. This is often distasteful and is a classic example of how nations try to forget their histories.

Paying attention and respect to people’s culture is also depicted in the manner in which Barry Barclay interviews the characters and subjects of his films (Ngati 1978). Because the Maoris are shy people and prefer to be in a group than alone, Barry makes sure he respects that. He therefore interviews the subjects when they are in a group of friends and family, giving them plenty of time to respond to his questions. Barry also uses a lens with a long zoom to ensure that the subjects of his interview are not made uncomfortable by the presence of the camera crew.

The need to produce an indigenous film based on the accurate facts of the concerned culture is also discussed in the article ‘The soul and the image’ written by Mita (1996). Like the article by Barry Barclay, Mita’s article is also about the Maori people of New Zealand and their different responses towards different films made about them. Mita argues that the Maoris like and respect filmmakers who take their time to understand the different aspects of their cultures such as the way of dressing, talking and living. This is because such filmmakers will ultimately produce films that truly depict the Maoris’ culture. On the other hand, the Maoris dislike and distrust filmmakers who fail to make an effort to understand their culture but instead they want to make a film about them that is contrary to their ways of life. The article also talks about the evolution of film in New Zealand beginning in the late nineteenth century. Initially, the local people were afraid of films because they believed that if captured on films, their souls could be lost. However, the local people have grown to appreciate films particularly those that truly depict their culture (Mita 1996).

The film Patu (1983) gave viewers a glimpse into New Zealand’s television industry which is rife with racism. The film shows that racism is a phenomenon that is practiced in all societies both far and near. As long as a society is comprised of groups from different cultural backgrounds there is bound to be one group that would feel superior to others.

The film Once Were Warriors (1994) is a very powerful film that is rife with violence and human abuse. The film is however used to portray the problems that face the Maori people as a result of colonialism. Colonialism has brought about a grave division of people which is shown by the different conditions that Maoris live from the Pakehas. As the majority group, the Pakehas live a comfortable life in the urban areas whereas the Maoris live in the urban surroundings because their rural areas have been taken away by the Pakehas. The movement of the Maoris from rural to urban surroundings shows a move of the people towards ‘civilization’ but in a true sense it is a reflection of the assimilation of the Maori people into the European culture. Like all urban cultures, the urban culture in this film is rife with violence and crime. Although living in the same surroundings, this culture does not however reflect the culture of the Maori people who are by nature peaceful people. The film is also an illustrator of post-colonialism. In many societies, life after colonialism meant that people of the lower class have to lead low-quality lives in the urban slums where they could serve people belonging to the upper classes. The upper class is also the ruling class of the society and as long as the difference in power exists, the lower class people will always be oppressed by the upper class (Pihama 1996).


Clando: Clandestine 1996, film, Jean-Marie Teno, Cameroon.

Keita! L’Heritage of the Griot 1995, film, Dani Kouyate, Burkina Faso.

Mita, M 1996, ‘The soul and the image’, in J Dennis & J Bieringa (eds), Film in Aotearoa/New Zealand, Victoria University Press, Wellington.

Murphy, D & Williams, P 2007, Postcolonial African cinema: ten directors, Manchester University Press, Manchester.

Ngati 1978, film, Barry Barclay, Aotearoa.

O’Connor, A & Downing, J 1995, ‘Culture and Communication’, in J Downing, A Mohammadi & A Sreberny-Mohammadi (eds), Questioning the Media: A Critical Introduction, Sage, London.

Once Were Warriors 1994, film, Lee Tamahori, Aotearoa.

Patu! 1983, film, Merata Mita, Aotearoa.

Pihama, L 1996, ‘Repositioning Maori representation: Contextualizing Once Were Warriors’, in J Dennis & J Bieringa (eds), Film in Aotearoa/New Zealand, Victoria University Press, Wellington, pp. 192-3.

Said, E 1992, ‘Orientalism’, in A Easthopr & K McGowen (eds), A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader, Open University Press, Buckingham, pp. 59-65.

Shohat, E & Stam, R 1994, ‘From eurocentrism to polycentrism’, in E Shohat & R Stam (eds), Unthinking Eurocentrism, Routledge, New York, pp. 13-27.

Young, R 1995, ‘Sex and inequality: The cultural construction of race’, in R Young (ed), Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture, and Race, Routledge, New York, pp. 90-118.

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