Cinephilia and Colonialist Cinema

As I noted on Twitter, I was taken aback by the odd phrasing, to put it mildly, of one of Filmstruck's latest series:

So much is wrong in this of course, from the "right to rule" business to the insidious passive voice. Most charitably, I might chalk it up to a Filmstruck employee being tone deaf in writing up a blurb for a not quite coherent series.

But this raises a question that I think is broader than this instance: why do nominal attempts at including cinema of the global south sometimes end up highlighting colonialist cinema (or critiques of colonialism from within the colonizer)? I think there are two intersecting reasons.

First, film libraries run by major distribution companies have historically prioritized Hollywood and (secondarily) European cinema. So when Netflix tries to list African films, many are in fact US films about Africa. I suspect Filmstruck is in a similar situation, in which its film library features many more US and European films about colonialism than those of postcolonial filmmakers.

Second, it's not happenstance that Filmstuck/Janus/TCM's library is heavy on US-Euro films about colonialism. It's built into the studio-era and postwar art-cinema version of their cinephilia. Those of us who love older movies often have to reconcile that love with the knowledge that these films are colonialist in their outlook (among other problems). I think many feel that tension, between recognizing the vitality of one the of the 20th century's great popular art forms and not wanting to blithely overlook the racist, colonialist, or sexist ideologies it often took.

There's an overwhelming impulse to want to rehabilitate cinephilia by incorporating a retrospective political critique. Recently, for instance, I heard someone from TIFF Light Box highlight a recent program in which Jacqueline Stewart introduced a screening of Gone with the Wind. I recall having mixed feelings. On the one hand, I'd love to hear Stewart's take on the film, and it's great to open up the cinephilic canon to a more critical lens. On the other hand, unless done in the right spirit, such events can serve as a justification for a continued prioritizing of films like Gone with the Wind in retrospectives.

I do think one can do a better version of what FilmStruck is trying to do, in juxtaposing colonialist cinema with post-colonial and anti-colonial cinema, or of thinking of the relation between them. But that would mean an ethical self-awareness of what the love of cinema's history can entail.


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