In cinema, you can still be called "orientalist" if you depict another culture. And eastern filmmakers are "pandering" if they are applauded in the westby Mark Cousins / July 22, 2006 / Leave a comment
On hearing that I am to co-curate a British festival of Chinese cinema, a colleague warns against the dangers of orientalism. When I made my series on Iranian cinema for Channel 4 last year, people also questioned whether I was being orientalist. A popular topic for PhD film students these days is how Chinese breakthrough films like Zhang Yimou’s Hero and House of Flying Daggers are “pandering” to the west. In Iran, director Abbas Kiarostami is often accused of the same thing. At the Mexico City film festival this year, local films featuring peasants or agricultural workers were often called “folkloric.” In Scotland, where I live and work, the pitfalls of kitsch and tartanry have led directors and screenwriters in the opposite direction, towards social realism.
The fear of fake in cinema is everywhere. This is understandable. For 50 years, the world’s two largest film industries—Hollywood and Bollywood—have kitschified every corner of the globe. Edward Said’s influential book Orientalism arrived in 1978, just as America was shaking off its 1970s flirtation with seriousness and inventing the blockbuster and the multiplex, so Said’s arguments seemed bang up to date. Mainstream cinema today, with its Arab terrorists and exotic geishas, would still enrage him, but in general, the fear of fake—call it kitschophobia—is damaging global film.
Nearly every aspect of cinema is globalised these days; pirate DVDs of even Brokeback Mountain are on sale outside mosques in Cairo. The exchanges of imagery, eroticism, narrative and myth between the middle east and the west are no longer, as Said envisaged, based on colonial power and updated by 19th-century grand tourists enthralled by ill-informed views of the Arab world.
Take the charge of pandering levelled against Kiarostami and Zhang Yimou. Just as Said accused some Arab intellectuals of internalising colonial power structures and so parroting orientalist ideas, so these filmmakers are seen as equally masochistic, hurting their own culture by “strip-teasing” it for the gratification of the onlooker. Nonsense. If anything, Zhang’s recent films could be criticised for sucking up to China’s ongoing reconstruction of its national pride, certainly not grovelling to the west. And if Kiarostami is making things we want so much, why do his films make so little money in the west, and why is there such a black market for them—untainted as they are by mullah discourse—in Iran?
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