A Beginner’s Guide to National Cinema Theory

National cinema is a tough subject to broach. You may not have even heard of it before. Perhaps you can ascertain what it’s about: cinema from a nation.

National cinema theory is embedded in our subconscious. It makes things easier to describe films from the country in which the director came from. National cinema theory has a tenuous history that one article can tackle. This article is merely the jumping-off point to one of the film studies’ foundation blocks.

WHAT IS NATIONAL CINEMA THEORY

When we think of a foreign film, how do we typically describe it? If you were telling your friends to watch Parasite (2019), I can assume you would probably tell them it is a Korean film. Or perhaps you’ve seen the plethora of listicles telling you all the Korean films you should watch after Parasite‘s historical win as Best Picture. You might think that that’s the end of national cinema theory: identify where the film is from and use the country to describe the film.

Simply put, national cinema theory seeks to understand a film’s origins and how that is reflected in the work itself. You might think this is easy enough, but how would you categorize where a film comes from? Is it solely from the country of origin of the director? Is it the location of where the narrative takes place? There is a myriad of ways to identify a country of origin for a film.

A Quick Guide to National Cinema Theory
Parasite (2019) – source: CJ Entertainment

The collaborative nature of film complicates identifying a country of origin, especially in this globalized world. Arguments have gone back and forth about what should be considered national cinema or even if national cinema theory should be used as a basis for film analysis. At the heart of national cinema theory is this question: can a film speak to a nation’s history or culture?

HISTORY

Film wasn’t originally thought of as an art form coming from a specific nation. In fact, it was seen as one of the first globalized mediums. After all, films were silent. You did not need to know the language to enjoy a film. Intertitles could easily be swapped out and replaced with a translated text.

Modern scholars began to look craft national cinema theory after the publication of Imagined Communities: Reflection on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism by Benedict Anderson in 1983. He argued that the arrival of talking pictures created national cinema. When a film introduced a specific language, it was no longer speaking to a global audience. Talking films, in essence, created barriers and became tools to build the imagined community.

Film scholars to this day still use the term “imagined community” when discussing national cinema. Anderson wrote that nations are merely political and cultural creations to collective imagination. And how do you continue to develop this imagination? Through cultural productions like literature, art, and film. A film can tell stories that can show what it means to be from a nation.

A Quick Guide to National Cinema Theory
Stagecoach (1939) – source: United Artists

For example, John Ford’s landmark film, Stagecoach (1939), is the classic American Western. From the romanticization of the cowboy and the frontier to the murder of indigenous tribes, Westerns like Stagecoach promote the American ideology of Manifest Destiny, long after the frontier disappeared. It’s films such as these that perpetuate the United States’ history and culture.

CHALLENGES TO THEORY

This is not to say that national cinema theory has its detractors. Shortly after Anderson’s Imagined Communities was published, critics such as Partha Chatterjee, noted that Anderson’s theory ignores the Euro-centric implications of nationalism. Who decides what is and is not a nation?

Specifically looking at cinema, national cinema theory ignores the large influence that Hollywood has globally. Thomas Elsaesser argues that nations are typically constructed by Hollywood studios, not directors within a specific nation. Tom O’Regan pushes this idea further that other nations internalize and “indigenize” other nation’s tropes into their own national cinema works.

A Quick Guide to National Cinema
Moulin Rouge! (2001) – source: 20th Century Fox

For example, Australian director Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001) adapts an Italian opera, La bohème, into a jukebox musical set in France, with Australian actress Nicole Kidman, English actor Ewan McGregor, and a largely American and Australian cast. Furthermore, Luhrmann noted a large source of inspiration for his style came from Bollywood films. Does Moulin Rouge! describe the Australian experience or culture? Your gut instinct would tell you no.

Moulin Rouge! is an example of what scholar Andrew Higson would describe as “transnational.” He argues that national cinema is too focused on rigid examples of nations that exist in a closed space, untouched by influences of the outside world. To promote national cinema is akin to promoting the idea that globalization does not exist.

NATIONAL CINEMA THEORY TODAY

Considering the critiques of national cinema theory, should you even use it? Yes and no. It’s important to realize that not every film released will add to the national cinema discourse. However, to this day directors are conscious about highlighting their nation’s culture in their works.

Circling back to Parasite, does it add to the national cinema of South Korea? Many would argue that it does. Director Bong Joon-ho has stated that Parasite was a return to a Korean-centric due to the heavy emphasis of late-stage capitalism in South Korean culture. The inequality in South Korea is so stark that there is a term for it: “Hell Joseon.” While Parasite resonated with an international crowd, there were constant reminders that the film is Korean – from the language, ran-don, and the obsession with Taiwanese bakeries.

At the end of the day, scholars will continue to debate this issue and never truly come to a conclusion. But that’s ok. National cultures and therefore national cinemas are constantly in flux. The crux of national cinema theory today is balancing the national and the transnational. Is a film truly ever one or the other? Who decides what is and is not a national cinema? Can places like Hong Kong which aren’t technically nations still have a national cinema?

What are your criteria for a national cinema? Discuss in the comments!

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