Cinema and the Third World

In 1895, Louis Lumiere invented the cinematograph in France. The cinematograph was a miraculous hand-cranked machine that operated both as a camera and projector.

Within a year of this invention, competition was already close on Lumiere's heels. He had already begun marketing his new toy in Paris, London, and New York. Shortly after these initial screenings, the first exhibition of the cinematograph was held in Latin America in 1896. By the turn of the century, the cinematograph had traveled with Lumiere operators to cities around the world, including Bombay, Shanghai, Cairo, Alexandria, Tokyo, Manila, and Dakar.

The cinematograph was packaged as Western novelty import, not unlike the bicyle or the phonograph. Marketing of the cinematograhp was targeted toward elite audiences. Expatriate Europeans, colonial merchants, and other members of the Third World's Westernized elite eagerly sought to capitalize upon the profit potential of the silver screen.

The magic of cinema was at the service of such entrepreneurial visions. While the tools of the trade remained in the hands of the elite, traveling tent shows spread the fascination of cinema to local audiences throughout the Third World.

At the same time in the West, cinema exploded in popularity. During the World War I era, filmmaking became industrialized in Europe and the United States . Capitalism was at a peak; small-scale industry had undergone a period of burgeoning growth. The expanding urban proletariat was a hungry market for mass entertainment. Cinema in the West developed the capital base necessary to support increasingly complex systems of cinematic production, distribution, and exhibition.

Operating within these systems, Hollywood readily claimed its fame as the world's leading producer of films, already controlling the world's richest domestic film market in the United States. From the 1920s until the 1950s, through its highly-organized program of production, distribution, and exhibition, Hollywood proceeded to dominate cinematic venues not only in the Western world, but also throughout the Third World.

Lacking the basic infrastructure and industrial impetus that facilitated the explosion of cinema in the West, cinema in the Third World remained in a state of underdevelopment. Foreign control over production, distribution, and exhibition relations stifled Third World filmmaking in its earliest stages. However, by exemplfying its potential for profit, Hollywood's popularization of cinema gradually inspired investments in the Third World filmmaking industry.

Production studios and theatres began to appear in countries such as India, Brazil, Cuba, China, and the Phillipines as early as the 1920s. Stuiods and theatres arrived in Colombia, Bolivia, Chile, and Guatemala by the 1930s, followed by the rise of Asian studios in the 1950s. Countries such as Turkey, Burma, Korea, Pakistan, Egypt, and Tumis acquired studios and theatres throughout this general period. These developments in the world of cinema coincided directly with economic development and political independence in the Third World.

By the end of World War II, history was facilitating more opportunities for the growth of Third World cinema. The war had again stimulated industrialization; additional development in the Third World supported a growing infrastructure for production, distribution, and exhibition. Post-war decolonization also re-inforced nationlistic sentiments throughout the Third World, finally facilitating the emergence of a national film culture in the 1950s.

At the same time, competition from the emergence of television in the 1950s began to destabalize Hollywood's universal dominance in the entertainment marketplace. The spread of sound technologies also enabled Third World filmmakers to use national languages to address issues of local relevance and interest. As a result, national cinemas became an increasingly viable commercial industry in the Third World.

Despite post-independence commercial success, the nationalization of cinema in the Third World continued to be shaped by colonial influences. Because the political independence of Third World countries did not automatically facilitate economic independence, the process of industrializing film industries in the Third World remained linked to the influence of foreign relations in economic development. Westernized elites continued to control Third World film industries, working to maximize thier own profits and capitalize upon market conditions. Little attention was given in cinematic venues to the social, political, and economic interests of the remaining non-elite populations of the Third World.

Nationalization, however, did support an infrastructure for Third World filmmaking and the emerging efforts of individual filmmakers. These filmmakers began to re-imagine the world through local interpretations of social, political and economic realities.

Directors such as Satajit Ray in India, Youssef Chahine in Egypt, Sembene Ousmane in Senegal, Yilmaz Guney in Turkey, Tomas Gutierrez Alea in Cuba, Glauber Rocha in Brazil, Jorge Sanjines in Bolivia, and others around the world openly questioned and probed issues of colonialism, imperialism, nationalism, racism, sexism, class, culture, religion, armed struggle, corruption, and under/development. The efforts of these progressive artists evolved as a body of work and a collective movement of 'new cinema'. New cinema was an alternative cinema that challenged the surface realism of commercial film industry traditions and revealed the need for social change.

Third Cinema

arising from a period of revolutionary fervor during 1960s and 1970s, both cinema and the Third World had become increasingly politicized and theorized. Two important articles were published by progressive filmmakers in the early 1970s: "Towards an Imperfect Cinema" by Julio Garcia Espinosa (Cuba) and "Towards a Third Cinema" by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Gettino (Argentina). These articles introduced a forum for discourse on 'Third Cinema' by theorizing a politics of style and ideology in cinema.

Garcia Espinosa challenged the formal perfection of cinema in relation to the aesthetics of Western imperialism. Solanas and Gettino focused on the decolonization and demystification of information as a means of re-presenting popular truths and provoking or otherwise inspiring popular participation and activism. Forms such as the allegorical narrative and verite documentary were explored through styles emphasizing immediacy and the strategic use of avaliable resources. These appraoches evolved a paradigm of oppositional practice as a response to the problems and possibilities of cinema in the Third World.

Since their inception, the ideals of Third Cinema have been variously adopted and applied. Today, cinema is widely recognized for its power as a tool of cultural production. The efforts of filmmakers in/from the Third World and its diaspora continue to have an important role in instigating social change through cinema. By creatively engaging critical analysis of complex social realities, the tradition of Third Cinema thrives as a means of challenging oppression and demanding justice for underrepresented peoples around the globe.