When challenged on the absence of an ideologically clear and direct response to the conflict that has defined Northern Ireland in the 20th century, the poet Seamus Heaney once replied that such an approach was anathema to his sensibilities. That he wouldn’t be a “spokesman” and that he had “an early warning system telling me to get back inside my own head.”
This anecdote has long made home in my head. Brief as it is, I find it to be powerfully emblematic of the many conflicting expectations, questions and complexities that bound up in the relationship between the role of the artist and nationality and by extension the very nature or purpose of art itself and the artist’s place within the social contract.
In cinema’s case, the waters can get even murkier. As one of the most expensive arts, a many hands, cottage or industrial production, it is particularly prey to the vagaries of the political and economic winds. Its shape and size prone to the engineered or haphazard dictates of each individual nation’s specific set of socio-cultural conditions, past and present.
For instance, though you can find no shortage (in quantity if not diversity) of both American and French life in the cinemas of United States and France, both have also brimmed with the influence and experiences of expatriates and exiles. In addition, Hollywood has, throughout its history, pooled and poured considerable resources into the recreation of other lands, peoples and ways. Both in and ex situ.
Chinese cinema exists in multiple, separate and converging, strands, rather than as an all-encompassing entity, partly because of the changing, complex political situation that has developed around conflicting definitions of Chinese identity and sovereignty. India, as a vast multi-ethnic, multi-lingual nation, is also home to many cinemas. And yet your average passing glance from the West tends to set West Bengal, with its Parallel cinema movement and figures like Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, aside and then sweep everything else under the rug of Hindi cinema and the condescending moniker ‘Bollywood’.
Even my own country, Ireland, is a difficult case to address, for because of its late industrialization and then English’s dominance as the vernacular—cemented just a few short decades before the birth of the artform—cinema as a sustained industrial endeavour is a very late development. There is also a dependence on the two most primary centres of English language cinema between which the island is wedged. Then there is also her disproportionately large diaspora to consider. Ultimately, Irishness on screen has historically found less fertile ground in the old country than elsewhere; across the Atlantic, in the reveries of the homesick and the fantasies of those who were fed their memories.
There are just a few, sketchily drawn examples. You will find more detailed case studies in the essays that will follow. For instance, Patrick Preziosi’s piece on the films of Naruse Mikio takes on the air of rootlessness that pervaded Japan’s post-war, post-occupation years and which can be found absorbed and exhibited in myriad ways through the great director’s domestic dramas of quiet desperation.
Anuj Malhotra takes a long look at John Abraham and his masterpiece Amma Ariyan (1986), and finds a filmmaker who, through uniquely co-operative production methods, found his own way amidst an already wide and diverse Indian cinema. In his case, radical and militant means made for an equally radical and militant cinema.
On the other hand, Alonso Aguilar writes not about one filmmaker or even one country. Instead he seeks to tie by tendency the cinemas of Central America. A region made up of disparate nations, cultures and cinematic pursuits and yet there are commonalties to be found in the shared and persistent pain of colonialism and the use of the seventh art to analyse a past and present that are inconvertible.
Savina Petkova looks at contemporary Bulgarian cinema and specifically the films Viktoria (Maya Vitkova, 2014) and Irina (Nadejda Koseva, 2018), where she finds a more critical, corporeal and feminist perspective on the country’s communist legacy, in contrast to other, prevailing outlooks that are often either rosy-eyed or blind when it comes to the past.
Also taking a polemical tact, David G. Hughes draws from a wide range of sources, from soap operas to Virgil’s Aeneid, to posit the straight from the shoulder, egalitarian ethics of action star Scott Adkins as the epitome of the English working-class spirit and his cinema of skill as a third way for British cinema.
These essays find their own, individual routes and destinations and yet taking them together you will find an exploration of the relationship between national identity and cinema as a manifold thing, born out of a complex web of factors, traumas and aspirations.