Can cinema produce social justice?
Six decades separate the #OscarsSoWhite movement and the publication of Hortense Powdermaker’s ethnography on Hollywood’s inner workings Hollywood, the Dream Factory: An Anthropologist Looks at the Movie-Makers (1950). Yet Powdermaker’s analysis presents a clear diagnosis of the structures the contemporary movement struggles against. Powdermaker writes about the power of the cinema to inform our ways of thinking and notes how the social relations of the industry itself indelibly shape the movies produced within it. A social reality of racism and exclusion in the industry inevitably shapes its films, further entrancing those realities in the world around it. What #OscarsSoWhite adds is a call for action and a belief in the possibility for change. Changing the industry would change its representations, and this can change the society its films refer to. It is a proactive approach that both recognizes the reach and power of the cinema and shows faith in film’s transformative capabilities.
It is this trust in cinema as a tool for what is good and ethical, cinema as a means for progress and the improvement of self and of society, that I have been drawn to investigate over the last few years. After a decade of studying the “bad” cinema of Bangladesh, focusing on porn and low-budget action film (Hoek 2014), I am amazed and inspired by those who indefatigably rally around a utopian view of the cinema as a force for good. Set off against the misanthropy of rape revenge narratives and quick-buck producers, the idea of the cinema as a technology for a better society is bracing.
For Belayet Hossain Mamun, the driving force behind the Moviyana Film Society in Dhaka, Bangladesh, it is abundantly clear: cinema can be a means to achieve greater social justice. Talking to me at Moviyana’s home in the National Academy of Fine and Performing Arts in 2014, he spoke at length about the possibilities for the uplift of women, the advancement of indigenous people, the restructuring of an unjust society, and even the changing of the times through the intercession of cinema. Mamun’s faith in the medium, despite its changing fate amid digitalization and the diversification of moving image forms, is unshakeable. He dedicates his waking hours, of which there appear to be many, to what he calls the practice of cinema. Not primarily as a filmmaker, but as an educator, as an organizer, and as an inexhaustible promoter of Cinema with a capital C.
Cinematic practice as cultivated by film activists in Dhaka is a deeply personal and embodied process. Stretching the capacities of your eyes and ears, tuning your senses to become antennae sensitive to even the most subtle of vibrations emanating from capital C Cinema, cinema practice is about priming yourself to be fully receptive to the films of the great film directors, such as Ghatak, Fellini, Truffaut, Kaul, Kieslowski, Flaherty, Raihan, and so on. To plonk yourself down in front of a laptop with a bag of popcorn will not do. The engagement with the screen must be dynamic and informed. And to achieve such a capacity for viewing requires practice. Like film students everywhere, requisite for the film activist are hours of careful watching and analysis, an immersion in the life and works of auteurs, the reading of their texts, and a good grasp of film history.
My fieldwork was set among those training their bodies and minds for such appreciation of the masters and their masterpieces. From the 1960s, such a cinematic engagement could be achieved in Dhaka through the intercessions of international cultural institutions, such as the Goethe Institute or the Russian Cultural Centre, collaborating with well-organized film societies to bring reels of international cinema to Bangladesh. Together they would run festivals and screenings during which a self-selecting set of sincere film fanatics would sit through hours of world cinema, interrupted only by quick tea and cigarette breaks and discussions about the Brechtian influence. Closely watched by the Bangladeshi state, nervous about the alliance between these foreign institutions and the energetic young men (the women few and far between), the tight policing of such film activities by the Bangladesh Ministry of Information only encouraged the view of film activism as directly politically efficacious and subversive of repression. Today, the ubiquity of films that digital formats have brought means that the true film activist must be highly self-disciplined to watch the right films in the right manner.
There are many historical antecedents in South Asia for the obsession with “good” film and appropriate ways of watching them (Dass 2015; Majumdar 2012; Mazzarella 2013; Srinivas 2000; Vasudevan 2010). What these scholars show is a widespread concern about the inappropriate viewing of others: of audiences composed of working class men, of uneducated or rural viewers, of those who delight in cultural formats inadequate to the promise of true cinema. Considered temperamentally unsuited to watching cinema, they must be shielded through film censorship. This is anathema to Dhaka’s film activists, who aim for the filtering of the images of great cinema to be an internal process rather than externally imposed. Their work is not primarily directed at “others” who must be sheltered through external means but instead focuses on the reconstruction of their own sensorium, a personal internal transformation. Mamun’s film practice is a continuous training of his own viewing practices and those of his society members. They aim for a virtuoso reading of the cinematic text, the laying down of childish affectations (in particular with regard to Bengali cinema, see Kabir 1979; Ray 2013) and the development of a true eye. Trained in this way, they subject themselves to that visceral force of the visual that scholars have pointed to as its most efficacious aspect (Pinney 2005; Shobchack 2004).
Such diegetic work, the aspiration to learn to experience the key texts for their true message, the hours of practice and slow calibration of one’s sensorium, show clear similarities with other movements for self-reform known to anthropologists. The cinema can be seen as one particular medium for, or materiality of, a desire to improve oneself. Comparable modes of ethical and moral reformation, of self-improvement through the practice of new forms of self-governance, can be found in anthropological accounts of religious practice, of development initiatives, and of ethical movements (Hirschkind 2006; Lambek 2010; Murray Li 2007). What these have in common with the film activists in Bangladesh, is their emphasis on the capacity of the individual to engender change through an inward transformation. Mediated through external objects, a change within ultimately engenders change without as individuals take hold of how their senses are mobilized and for what purposes, altering the ways they participate in the world (Rancière 2006). The aesthetic politics of the cinema, and its capacity to encourage social justice, is here consciously crafted within the sensate body of individual viewers.
Powdermaker and the #OscarsSoWhite movement stress the formative nature of industrial practice and those that control it for the textures of cinema. They see the possibilities for change located within those structures. The film activists in Dhaka I’ve been working with point to the steps that can be taken by film viewers to encourage and promote a socially responsible cinema, which they feel will lead to a more socially equitable society. Cinema practice by activists calls for a transformation our own viewing practices, to develop our sensorium, to enhance our capacity to appreciate the art form that is Cinema. Better film viewing will generate a better society. Our own viewing practices are one more place from which to start in a quest for more just and diverse ways of seeing and picturing.
Lotte Hoek is senior lecturer in social anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. Her research explores the nature of the cinema at the end and edges of film in South Asia. She is currently writing a book about the politics of film appreciation in Bangladesh. She is the author of Cut-Pieces: Celluloid Obscenity and Popular Cinema in Bangladesh and co-editor of BioScope: South Asian Screen Studies.