Marx at the Movies in Preston and Third Cinema in Oxford

Events since the near-death experience of finance capital in 2008 have succoured renewed attention not to Marxism as a political creed but to Marx as the urtext of the proper analysis of the capitalist system. On the one hand, old established Marxist scholars like Fredric Jameson, Terry Eagleton and David Harvey have all published new books, while on the other, numerous articles alluding to Marx’s relevance have appeared in both the capitalist press and independent weeklies, sometimes even on the radio (though never television). On the web, you can find a growing number of videos about capitalism, its discontents and dysfunctions, strongly informed by Marxist ideas, jostling for attention with an explosion of more anarchistic street level video activism.

The political conjuncture is very different from the decades prior to the collapse of Communism, but there are also signs of renewed interest, within the interstices of scholarly film studies, in exploring the heritage of Marxism in the cinema. A representative expression of this interest was a gathering  in Preston, at the University of Central Lancashire, under the title ‘Marx at the Movies’ (organised by Lars Kristensen, Ewa Mazierska and Anandi Ramamurthy).

Unfortunately I was only able to attend the first day, so cannot give a full report, but the ground covered was ample. More than a dozen panels on themes such as alienation, dialectics, praxis, ideology and class. Papers around particular figures or moments (Godard and Loach, of course, but also, for example, British television drama of the 70s by Trevor Griffiths and David Mercer). Questions about the political film practices of earlier times, when Marxism provided the vocabulary for revolutionary socialist aspirations. My own contribution was a short paper about contemporary video activism called ‘Notes of a Video Blogger’ (which I’ll post up here shortly).

Some American friends wondered about the symbolism of the name of the functional high-tech building where the event was housed: the Media Factory. The previous weekend saw a smaller event on the heritage of Third Cinema in Latin America in the rather more rarified setting of Oxford. Appreciation to Claire Williams, María Donapetry and Roberta Gregoli for mounting the event, which addressed topics such as historical memory and metaphor, child politics, indigenous filmmaking, Chilean documentary, popular cinema, and figures including two of the most idiosyncratic Latin American filmmakers, the Mexican Paul Leduc and the Argentinian Lucrecia Martel. We heard papers from Debbie Martin, Charlotte Gleghorn, Claudia Bossay, Ryan Prout, Niamh Thornton, and Liz Greene, as well as Claire, María and Roberta themselves. Here my contribution was a screening of Three Short Films About Chile, which as well as portraying the student protests of recent months, speaks of video activism and community television, both of which were born in clandestinity back to the 1980s.

The Oxford event threw up a conundrum. Although every contribution added to our individual and collective knowledge, a difficulty emerged that everyone recognised: a discourse was being generated around a very loose notion of third cinema, a kind of phantom of an idea of a lost practice to which no-one could any longer aspire but which had nevertheless left its mark, this way in one director, that way in another. The Argentine film historian Clara Kriger, visiting England on a research trip and sitting in on the conference, said she found it all rather bewildering, because no-one in Argentina uses the term tercer cine in this way, if they speak of it at all. What I found myself when I was in Chile last November is that film students know what it is, but also don’t think of it as a tradition they belong to. Nevertheless, there is a real interest in Chile in recovering the political cinema of the years of Popular Unity, a cinema brutally cut off, and the filmmakers involved forced into exile, by the military coup of 1973.

Another sign of this revival of interest: a few days ago I received an inquiry from an undergraduate at another University here in London, writing a dissertation on the contemporary relevance of third cinema. And her questions were really interesting, especially in the light of the Oxford symposium (and some passing remarks in Preston). She asked, among other things, ‘Do you think the oppositional ideas/concepts of third cinema theory are still useful?’ The answer is that I do, but with some important qualifications.

I find that I bridle slightly at phrases like ‘a third cinema style’—because the concept of third cinema runs counter to any kind of stylistic prescriptions. Another unfortunate error is to equate third cinema with ‘cinema of the third world’, because the concept speaks not of physical but virtual geography. Indeed, since the end of the Cold War, the globe is no longer to be divided into three worlds (the metropolitan countries of capitalism; the communist bloc; the non-aligned countries): the second world has disappeared.

As a description of cinema’s ideological landscape, however, the idea of three cinemas remains cogent. I ask myself what has changed since Solanas and Getino first introduced the concept in 1969, on the basis of their experience as militant film-makers in Argentina. Screens across the globe are still hugely dominated by the same ‘first cinema’, the exorbitant and formulaic genre movies of Hollywood and similar commercial industries—the cinema of studios and producers.

In Europe, Latin America, and scattered elsewhere across the globe, there is still a ‘second cinema’: a cinema where directors have the right to fnal cut, which is more modest, more individual and more socially critical. Solanas and Getino complained that second cinema usually ends up politically in a reformist (or in today’s vocabulary, ‘liberal’) position; this also remains largely true, although there are places—like Iran—where even second cinema is regarded officially with suspicion.

And there is certainly still a large, in fact growing sector of production of oppositonal film-making, all of it now on video, mainly non-fiction and outside the commercial circuits, because these are films the system can’t stomach. This is third cinema, and it can again be found everywhere. This was also true of the original conception. Solanas and Getino spoke of student and worker film groups to be found in the USA, Europe and Japan as well as in Latin America. Today, because of video and the internet, this kind of oppositional film-making can be carried out anywhere and be seen everywhere.

It’s true this is very schematic, and I subscribe to the view of the late Teshome Gabriel, the first serious academic scholar of third cinema—an Ethiopian in California—when he pointed out that these are best seen not fixed categories but highly fluid positions, and the most interesting films are often precisely the ones that fall not within but between the categories. This included (when Teshome was writing) the cinema of revolutionary Cuba, which perceived itself as a director’s cinema, but also, for example, the emergent cinema of Africa.

But here’s the nub. The concept of third cinema was born of a certain political conjuncture, which spoke the language of third world revolutionary marxism, by definition internationalist. In Latin America and across the third world, the Cuban Revolution of 1959 was a beacon, and the defence of Vietnam the greatest imperative. Tercer cine was the name of a form of praxis which was neither aesthetically nor politically programmatic, but advanced the causes of anti-imperialism and national liberation—true national self-determination, free of foreign domination and domestic dictatorship alike. It understood perfectly well that the domination it opposed was that of the capitalist system.

This hasn’t changed except for the language, as ‘imperialism’ became ‘globalisation’. Marxism as a political programme, however, after the momentous collapse of the communist bloc, lost its shine, and the conceptual language of third cinema went into rapid decline (like the language of socialism everywhere). Even in Argentina it has meant very little to the new generation of videographers-cum-film school graduates who comprised the movement known as cine piquetero, which exploded into activity when the country’s economy collapsed at the end of 2001. Solanas himself celebrated the moment as the rebirth of tercer cine. Was this merely nostalgia and wishful thinking?

As a form of urban cultural guerrilla war, tercer cine belonged to the interstices of the city. In the margins, away from the city, among the indigenous peoples, another kind of third cinema took shape in the form of video indigena (indigenous video). This took up the collective form of practice advocated by Solanas and Getino and inserted it into a new and highly receptive arena (which demonstrated in the process that video didn’t require literacy). And there was another crucial aspect: the work was distributed outside the market. Indeed these videos were not intended to be available for sale to people who had no direct relationship with the communities. They were not commodities. And nor are they today when they can be found on video streaming platforms. But this entails a rider: if video streaming also provides the native mode of the new wave of video activism, which also lies outside the market and avoids commodification, then what else is it but a new form of third cinema?

Digital video is the medium, but the medium is not the message—at least not in political terms. The political message is forged in real not virtual communities, and it’s a process, not a programme. It’s messy and confusing, because these communities, the indignados and the Occupy-ers, are trying to create a radically new way of doing politics which involves not making the usual political demands, refusing political pigeon-holes, not putting your political programme on the market like any other political party. In a word, they are trying to re-invent anarchism. It’s obviously too soon to say what will come of this, because in most places it hasn’t yet translated into political praxis. Or maybe it’s doing so but we’re not hearing about it. I wonder if the most significant piece of news to come out of Greece in recent weeks is perhaps an obscure report in the Greek Left Review that ‘Health workers in Kilkis, Greece, have occupied their local hospital and have issued a statement saying it is now fully under workers control.’ [*] I hope there’s someone there filming it all.

(I shall also post my other answers to the undergraduate student’s questions in another blog.)



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