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(DV) Kashani: Becoming Dissident Cinema







Cinema of Complexity
Becoming Dissident Cinema 

by Tony Kashani
January 13, 2007

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“You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.”


-- Franz Kafka


If scientists were to analyze my DNA they would find in there an element that could easily be defined as “cinema.” This also may be true of a great portion of humanity. From Bombay to Zanzibar to Paris to Tehran to New York to San Francisco to Tokyo to Bangkok to Peking to New Delhi to Kashmir, virtually everywhere, people love cinema -- or at least, in my romantically constructive way -- I would like to think that is the case. Cinema is a complex art form. In the present age, the most dominant form of cinema is the kind that is generated by the machinery we often refer to as “Hollywood.”


Hollywood manufactures narratives. That is, the kind of narratives which sell tickets, merchandise, and ideas (e.g., fantasies, dreams, myths, beliefs, etc.). These narratives for the most part are specifically designed to be simplified versions of the old myths, the Aristotelian either/or, Manichean good vs. Evil discourse (e.g., Star Wars series) [1], love conquers all under patriarchy (e.g., When Harry Met Sally), happy-face culture of neoliberal market economy, and so on. Then along the way, there, in the margins, exist a cinema that dissents and refuses to generate the same old formulas to reinforce conformity to the project of globalization (spearheaded by the US). A dissident cinema, you may ask? Indeed. I am referring to a narrative cinema that in form may resemble the professional Hollywood product, but in content it is far and away a different -- more complex -- story.


This kind of cinema, regardless of where it is made, whether it is a Brechtian narrative with heavy Italian neorealist influence, made by some independent filmmakers in Budapest, or a nuanced East Indian version of Bollywood (the South East Asian version of Hollywood), is made to be diametrically -- and ideologically -- opposed to Hollywood in content.  Moreover, as powerful -- and seemingly homological -- as Hollywood’s system tries to organize itself, there remains a dissenting faction that either comes out of the system or enters the system after it has found an audience in the marketplace. This is the kind of cinema that rejects the proverbial “you are either with us or with the terrorists.” In fact, dissident cinema strongly suggests, “We are neither with you nor with the terrorists.” “We want to include the excluded middle.” Cinema of complexity (i.e., dissident cinema) is interested in humanity to live in a planetary age where “difference” is celebrated and people can agree to disagree, non-violently. Dissident cinema promotes dialogue and refuses to bomb anyone into submission. To be sure, the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mel Gibson do not belong to such a cinema.   


One fact remains, and that is, this type of cinema, which manages to escape the reductionist machinery of the system, or fits itself into the distribution channel of it, is always a complex cinema. I should like to call it a cinema of complexity. I would even take my argument further and posit the cinema of complexity is the type of cinema that can be a medium of transformation. In other words, a form of cinema that potentially becomes a dissident cinema and teleologically works towards social change.


I would like to focus on two films, which I consider to be excellent examples of cinema of complexity as dissident cinema. They are Syriana (2005) and Paradise Now (2005). To what extent can dissident cinema assist us in making the planet a more just place? That is my inquiry here.


What is Complexity?


Before I begin discussing these films, I would like to explicate the meaning of “complexity” as is intended here. In his very readable work, The Radiance of Being, developmental scholar Allan Combs (2002) discusses complexity in relation to evolution. Combs argues that evolution is a result of rise of complexity. He describes evolution in three different ways. Combs sees one form of evolution as “biological evolution,” which is essentially the discourse of evolution amongst Darwinian and post-Darwinian biologists. Another form of evolution is against a “historical” background (i.e., historical evolution ala Combs). This infers notions of evolutionary stages of civilizations, ideas, and so on. In delineating the third way -- and the most important -- Combs explicates the sciences of complexity. The most important point, which is relevant to this essay, is that complexity is paramount in evolution (i.e., transformation).


Combs (2002) quotes psychology scholar Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to point to the importance of complexity in transformation and evolution. Csikszentmihalyi states,


Complexity provides a benchmark for evaluating the direction of evolution . . . To contribute to greater harmony; a person’s consciousness has to become complex. (p. 183)


Let us go directly to the source. Csikszentmihalyi (1993) defines complexity as a notion that refers to the relationship between differentiation and integration. In other words, complexity in any given system increases with more differentiation and integration. By differentiation Csikszentmihalyi refers to the parts of a system that differ from one another in function (e.g., hands and brain in human organism). And by integration he is referring to the relationship between the different parts. In other words, he refers to the extent of communication and cooperation between the parts (e.g., the brain ordering the hand to move).


Accordingly, a person who is more differentiated in knowledge, experience, and wisdom, can integrate his/her various parts and transform. Within the paradigm of integral philosophy and developmental thinking, complexity means developing differentiation and integration (Csikszentmihalyi, 1993; Combs, 2002).


Resting on the above argument and for the benefit of this inquiry, I should like to propose a new paradigm. I shall call it “paradigm of complexity.”  The French thinker-and co-founder of Cinema Verite [2], Edgar Morin (1999, 2001, 2005) anchors his planetary theories -- and speaking the truth to power -- in paradigm of complexity.  


In delineating the “paradigm of complexity” Morin explicitly puts forth three principles of complexity: dialogic, recursive, and holographic.


Dialogic refers to the tensions between two logics that work in varying combination together, sometimes opposite (as in the Hegelian dialectic) and sometimes complementary to one another. 


Recursivity is when an organism produces elements to regenerate the process that produced the organism in the first place. Things will recur and recur.


Holographic of course is the principle of one for all and all for one. In other words the whole representing the part while the part is always included in the whole. Which is to say that in a paradigm of complexity there is a recursive dialogic relationship between the part and whole (Kelly, 1999).


Syriana (2005)


You may be asking yourself, how can I contextualize the concept of “complexity” in a contemporary cinema? Imagine you are at the movie theatre, all warm and cozy, ready to suspend disbelief and immerse your senses into a reality that is not “real.” The movie starts, but it feels more “real” than you expected. This film warrants your attention. What is more, it is the kind of cinema that forces you to think -- in complex form. This is no True Lies or Shallow Hal, surely it is made in Hollywood by Hollywood folks, yet you are encountering a film that is reflexive and demands complex thinking, vis-à-vis its own complex thinking and reflection.


Imagine if such a film really existed. In my many years of involvement in cinema, scholarly and otherwise, I have encountered such cinema, though often it has been the type one finds outside of Hollywood.


In my view, Syriana is indeed a film that represents such a cinema. Here is a film that reflects -- in complex form -- on political issues of the day, ranging from the profit-driven politics of oil in the US and the Middle East, through Arab traditionalism versus modern economics, family conflicts and power games on a scale that can affect world peace. The portrayal of the two innocent Pakistani youths sucked into extremism by a fundamentalist, so-called Islamic, group is one of the film’s most potent parts that belong to the whole, which returns to its parts.


To be sure, it takes serious concentration to understand the plot, which moves from Iran to Texas, Washington, Switzerland, Spain, the Persian Gulf and beyond. The film employs cinematic techniques of realism (e.g., rapid continuity editing) to weave different stories together while seemingly abstract from one another. In other words actions of one agent in one part of the world are recursive and we are all interconnected-as presented in Syriana. The oil industry that creates unemployment and a dire future for the Pakistani boys, and CIA operations that support the neo-liberal goal of dominating the world oil supply, inadvertently provide a missile that is used in a suicide mission, by the same Pakistani boys, to damage the infrastructure of the same oil industry.


Morin (1999) points out that,


The particular becomes abstract as soon as it is isolated from its context, from the whole of which it is a part. The global becomes abstract as soon as it is detached from its parts. Thinking the planetary complex involves a ceaseless movement from the part to the whole and from the whole to the part. (p. 131)


Syriana has a complex narrative structure with rapid parallel editing [3] that weaves its composite characters through scenes that are loaded with subtext. A covert CIA agent sells two stinger missiles to an Iranian arms smuggler in Tehran. In the US, two oil companies are working out a difficult and corrupt merger in Texas under the scrutiny of a conniving Washington, D.C. attorney who conspires with the powerbrokers making behind-the-scene deals with the justice department. In this merging of power players, one oil company is losing its Middle East drilling rights to a Chinese bidder, while the other has acquired access to Kazakhstan’s untapped supply of crude oil.


The Chinese takeover of the Gulf oil refinery puts a Pakistani father and son out of work. The son is quickly radicalized after the physical abuse that he and his father receive at the hands of the local militia. He joins the ranks of a radical cleric. The parts come back to the whole and the whole contains the parts.


This is aligned with Morin’s thinking where he writes,


It is not enough to insert all things and events within planetary “framework” or “horizon.” It is a question, rather, of always seeking out the relation of inseparability and of inter-retro-action between each phenomenon and its context and of every context with the planetary context. (Morin, 1999, p. 130)


In contextualizing Syriana with the paradigm of complexity-and complex thinking, we must revisit the three principles of complexity as delineated by Morin. These principles are, a) the dialogic, b) the recursivity, and c) holographic. In seeing the complexity of world politics and how a certain action can have a “symbiotic combination of two logics, a combination that is at once complementary, concurrent, and antagonistic.” This very action can be recursive and become part of a loop. And finally, in line with the holographic principle, “the whole is in a certain manner included…in the part which is included in the whole.” (Morin, 1986, p. 102)


For example, in the beginning of the film we see that the CIA agent sells two missiles to the Iranian arms dealers -- this is a covert setup to assassinate the Iranians -- ostensible logic being the elimination of supporting agents of terrorism. One of the missiles kills the Iranians, but the other one falls into the hands of the Islamic fundamentalists who recruit the Pakistani boys who themselves are the victims of cruel geopolitical-economic episteme mainly recursive of a preceding episteme between the US government’s CIA and big oil. At the end of the film we see that the same missile is used to kill the oil industry executives -- same people who have initiated the loop. This plot structure is based on a realistic depiction of the complex global structure that has oil at the center.


As Morin (2005) intimates,


The inventors of the cinema have empirically and unconsciously projected into the open air the structures of the imaginary, the tremendous mobility of psychological assimilation, the processes of our intelligence. Everything that can be said of the cinema goes for the human mind itself, its power at once conserving, animating, and creative of animated images. (p. 203)


In that sense Syriana, in cinematic form, works like a mirror that reflects an interconnectedness of people and their actions in a planetary perspective. This raises many moral questions. Moral choices almost always involve complexity.


Construction of the Enemy


Hollywood has always done its best to systematically target a group of humanity and manufacture stereotypes to define that group. Examples of such manufacturing are ubiquitous; the clownish African American, the savage Native American, the cold-blooded Nazi German, the menacing Communist, the submissive Asian, the buffoon Arab, the irrational and barbaric Arab, the Muslim terrorist. In the past twenty some years --especially with emergence of Reaganism and the fall of the Soviet Union -- the new bad guys have been the Arabs, and after September 11 the bad guy project was expanded. Almost all Muslims are targets of “bad guy” manufacturing.


Earlier, the Disney Empire made Aladdin (1992), telling America’s children that Arabs are barbaric. Hollywood gave Aladdin an Oscar for its song, “A Whole New World.” George Bush Sr. had uttered the words “New World Order” after proclaiming victory in Gulf war I, hence assuming world leadership (i.e., supremacy). Just a coincidence? Two years later, Arnold Schwarzenegger blew up the Arab terrorist in True Lies (1994), Samuel Jackson uttered “waste the motherfuckers,” ordering the killing of Arab women and children in Rules of Engagement (2000), which shamelessly depicted an eight-year-old girl as a ruthless terrorist with a machine gun. Not surprisingly, the story of Rules of Engagement is written by James Webb, who was Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy, and most recently has become Senator-Elect for the State of Virginia (as a Democrat). It seems that the words “ethical” and “moral” do not enter the lexicon of Hollywood or its multinational corporate owners who in turn help elect (select) governments that also do not care for those words.


However, we are living in the planetary era. The planetary world has a strong mobility and widespread displacement. There is a huge Muslim population in England. Moreover, the so-called “brown dollar” is quite strong in the UK. Accordingly, the financing power of the Chinese is indeed formidable. With the Internet and satellite programming (e.g., Aljazeera) there is rapid communication, and we now have a phenomenon known as the global news media. Dissident cinema is also on the rise. The new world order is in the state of flux and continues to evolve while refuting the leadership of the neoconservatives, the Bushes, the Kerrys, the Deans, etc.


Paradise Now (2005-2006)


If we look around -- outside of Hollywood -- we might find a type of cinema that uses dramatic elements and gives us insights to a world that is obscured by CNN, FOX, and most of Hollywood, etc. In my view, Paradise Now (2005) happens to be a powerful example of such cinema. This is a story about two young Palestinian men, human beings -- like the rest of us -- in their twenties with desires, dreams, imagination, and intelligence, who volunteer to become suicide bombers. But it is about much more than that. Many citizens of the empire have asked the question, “Why would somebody want to voluntarily become a suicide bomber?” Or the proverbial, “why do they hate us?” Do the citizens of the empire ever ask, “Why do we hate them?” “To what extent is our foreign policy involved in this?”


Paradise Now asks those questions, and many more that are (potentially) generated as a result of this complex film.


In the era of the so-called “war on terror,” audiences on a global scale get to see Arabs as real human beings with all the differentiations and integrations. The two protagonists, along with the rest of the characters in the film, live in Nablus. Their existence has parameters that are determined by enforcers of a system of apartheid, namely the government of Israel. The film forces the audience to see a different picture than is customary in the West. The majority of the Americans, and many others besides, are convinced that the Israeli government is only protecting itself and has no choice but to keep the Palestinians virtually locked up in a tight space.


Paradise Now was shot on location in places where Westerners do not visit and rarely see images of in their daily news. The film, without taking sides or sitting on both sides of the fence, gives the audience a natural mise-en-scéne [4] of apartheid. Now, apartheid is a serious term to use. I use it because I call a spade a spade, apartheid. Former US president Jimmy Carter came under severe attack -- both by pro Zionist factions and the Democratic leaders -- for using the term in delineating the Israeli government’s Zionist policies in the occupied territories. Is the system in fear of the truth to the extent that it is willing to attack one of its own loyal agents? Indeed it is. Can dissident cinema speak the truth to power in a timeless manner? Indeed it can.


When a government utilizes its brutal military to facilitate illegal settlements on Palestinian land, and at once bans the people who had lived on the same land for hundreds of years from entering their own homeland, and refuses to make its roads available to Palestinians, the resulting condition is indeed apartheid by every definition of the word.


We are told that inside Israel it is all-democratic for Arabs and Jews alike. Is it? There are, in fact, clearly defined laws to protect the first-class (Jewish) citizens of Israel. The second-class (non-Jewish) citizens are subject to variations of the “other” set laws and policies. For example, if you are a Palestinian Arab who holds an Israeli passport and lives in Israel, you have access to some privileges in Israel, such as employment, home ownership, etc. But if you marry a Palestinian from the other side of the fence, the law prevents you from bringing your spouse to Israel to live with you. You certainly have the option of living in the occupied territories, hence losing your privileges and so on.


Paradise Now does not directly spell things out. Instead the film uses the cinematic language to raise questions and (hopefully) generate complex thinking. Clearly, the Zionist policies of Israel are designed to create a homogeneous society. Conversely, even the most homogeneous societies are marked by important internal differences. Dissenters will act. The image of the brave Chinese student who stood in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square is forever imprinted in history. That news video motion picture of the Chinese students made Tiananmen Square the center of the world for a short time. It seemed as if the whole world was watching the student demonstrations. Indeed a large part of humanity did watch the students rise up for freedom, however, the whole world was not doing a whole lot more than watching. That was in 1989. This begs the question whether in the 21st century a feature film or a body of films (dissident cinema) could propel people of the world to do more than just watch. Even the most isolated societies are influenced by foreign ways. One only has to walk around the streets of Tehran and see the Internet cafes, music stores, young women in their designer Jeans and iPods to see the influences of globalized economy, culture, etc. Can the foreign become the domestic?


Consider the film. The two very likable young men, Said and Khaled, volunteer to sneak into Tel Aviv and blow themselves and kill as many Israeli soldiers as possible. At first Khaled, who romanticizes about being a hero and bringing glory to his people, is very enthusiastic. After all he wants paradise, now. Said, who has a more complex history is skeptical. Said’s father had been a collaborator (with Israelis) and executed by the Palestinian militants who had discovered his betrayal. Therefore Said carries a heavy burden and understands the brutality of oppression a bit deeper than the other characters. He is looked down upon by some Palestinians for being a collaborator’s son while at once victimized by a systemic oppression conducted by sons of former victims of a horrible tragedy known as the holocaust.


The film never condones terrorism. Needless to say, there is no justification for a horrific devastation that bombing of any kind causes. In fact, in dealing with the complexity of oppression and the reaction of the oppressed, the violent resistance is placed under an examination lens and critiqued. The woman character in the film, Suha, offers a non-violent option for resistance. However, non-violence is quite complicated too. In a scene that is carefully designed to be analogous to the “last supper,” Said and Khaled sit at the center of a dinning table where they (Jesus) are essentially betrayed by the militants that have recruited them. They are offered martyrdom and a paradise -- that does not exist. Said and Khaled have discovered their agency, but it is directed towards destruction via an act (suicide) that is forbidden by Islam in the first place. Violence is not the answer. And many times in reactionary mode the outcomes are different than intentions.   


Consider the strong feminine voice in the film. Suha is a beautiful, Western educated woman whose father is a martyred national hero. Suha has returned to Nablus to work towards peace via non-violent protest. Said and Suha connect and we see a promise of romance, and perhaps a better life in the future for young Palestinians? The film generates this question, “can romance and a better life be possible for Palestinians?” In one scene, Suha asks Said if he has ever been to cinema. He explains to her that several years ago him and some other young men burned down the only cinema in Nablus because the Israeli government would not give job permits to Nablus residents. Perplexed, she asks, “Why did you burn the cinema? Why the cinema?” Said calmly replies, “why us?” To which Suha can only offer silence. The film implicitly asks, “Why do they hate us?” 


Much of the world needs an awakening about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is especially true for the citizens of the empire (USA). I posit the United States occupies a linear and simplified space in the political realm, from moderately liberal to conservative. The citizens of the empire have very little exposure to diverse points of view. The gatekeepers of mainstream cinema such as Steven Spielberg and Mel Gibson spoon-feed the consumers of their products with images that are reduced to the proverbial “good” and “evil” and there is no room for complexity in their cinema. At best the Spielbergs of Hollywood can give us an ambiguity, which translates humanity into a mysterious whirl of events beyond understanding or intervention. The culture industry in this country carefully avoids the tough questions. While selected individuals can be criticized and presented as the “bad apples” the world order itself is not questioned by the culture industry. We are led to believe Israel is beyond reproach, capitalism is natural, globalization is inevitable, Wars are necessary to protect our freedom and bring democracy to the barbarians, and so on.


Cinema of complexity questions these embedded assumptions. Moreover, this type of cinema poses questions that propel a critically conscious audience to seek the truth. After seeing films like Syriana and Paradise Now, audiences around the globe, especially in the US, can look at some facts and start asking questions. The following are some truths about a reality that should stare us all in the face, and is only a small sampling [5]:


* 122 Israeli children have been killed by Palestinians and 836 Palestinian children have been killed by Israelis since September 29, 2000 (source: rememberthesechildren.org)


* 1084 Israelis and 4398 Palestinians have been killed since September 29, 2000 (source: Red Crescent Society, and Israeli Defense Force (IDF))


* 7,633 Israelis and 31,168 Palestinians have been injured since September 29, 2000 (source: Red Crescent, and IDF)


* The US gives $15,139,178 per day to the Israeli government and military and $232,290 per day to Palestinian NGO’s. (source: US Agency for International Development (USAID))


* Israel has been targeted by at least 65 UN resolutions and the Palestinians have been targeted by none. (source: United Nations, as cited in Paul Findley’s Deliberate Deceptions, p. 192-194 by Paul Findley)


* One Israeli is being held prisoner by Palestinians, while 9,599 Palestinians are currently imprisoned by Israel (source: The Mandela Institute for Human Rights)


* 0 Israeli homes have been demolished by Palestinians and 4,170 Palestinian homes have been demolished by Israel since September 29, 2000 (source: B’Tsetem, The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories)


* The Israeli unemployment rate is 9%, while the Palestinian unemployment is estimated at 40% (source: The World Bank)


* 60+ new Jewish-only settlements have been built on confiscated Palestinian land between March 2001 and July 11, 2003. There have been 0 cases of Palestinians confiscating Israeli land and building settlements. (source: “Israeli Settlements Still Expanding,” article by Jonathan Cook, British journalist for the London Guardian)


* Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 clearly states: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”


* Israel currently maintains 54 permanent checkpoints in the West Bank that are usually staffed, and 12 other checkpoints within Hebron.


* According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, there is an average of 160 flying checkpoints throughout the West Bank every week.


* In addition to the checkpoints, the report says the IDF has erected hundreds of physical obstacles such as concrete blocks, dirt piles and trenches to restrict access to and from Palestinian communities. Palestinians have restricted access to 41 roadways in the West Bank, to which Israelis have unlimited access. (source: B’Tselem, The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories)


Paradise Now is the Boys in the Hood (1991) of the Middle East. John Singleton’s powerful rendition of Los Angeles ghetto life managed to enter the sphere of popular culture in the US. Fourteen years later, this independent film made by a Palestinian filmmaker (Hany Abu-Assad) enters the mainstream US market sideways. It won the Amnesty International Film Prize. It was then nominated for an Oscar, and subsequently distributed by Warner Brothers in 2006. To be sure, that does not mean we are taking major strides towards global peace and civilization. One only has to think back to 1989 when Spike Lee’s dissident cinema, Do the Right Thing, polemically made its audiences stare the reality of racism in the face. This complex film made the invisible elephant visible. Do the Right Thing is a critique of America. It forces the citizens of the empire to contemplate moral choices. There are no easy answers to the racist conditions that exist, and pretending that it does not exist will not make it go away. Do the Right Thing is a complex cinema of dissent that questions the answers and generates more questions. Was the world ready to give high accolades to this film? Not surprisingly, Do the Right Thing lost out to Steven Soderbergh’s Yuppie video therapy film, sex, lies and videotape (1989) at the Cannes Film Festival. Have the conditions changed? For 2005, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, a love story that shows that love does not conquer all won the Oscar for best director. The same year, Paul Haggis’s Crash, a story that validates and accepts structural racism as a normative while masquerading as an anti-racist film, won the top prize -- best motion picture. Meanwhile, George Clooney received the best supporting actor award for his work in Syriana, and Paradise Now was given the best foreign language film award by the Golden Globe committee but losing the Oscar to Gavin Hood’s Tsotsi, a South African/UK film that deals with a legacy of apartheid (before and after) and utilizes the “redemption of the individual agent” morality premise (the gangster protagonist). Some things change while others stay the same.


Conversely, in today’s so-called free market economy even the dissident cinema finds a place for exhibition and global access. It seems globalism is turning the tables on globalization. This begs a series of questions, “is cinema of complexity, dissident cinema the next great movement in cinema? As powerful as the French New wave? Can the status quo be challenged by this cinema to the extent where people will ask for social justice, and get it?” Has humanity evolved to a point where we will do more than just watch? The famous photograph of one of those Chinese students at Tiananmen Square during the 1989 demonstrations shows him wearing a T-shirt with the words, “we shall overcome,” inscribed on it-in English. Are we ready to act beyond watching? Postmodern thinking has given us globalism. We have allowed room for discourses on multiculturalism and hybridity. We are recognizing that we are in this thing together, however, the owners of power do not wish to relinquish their power or share it with others. One thing is becoming increasingly more crystallized, that is, we either share the power or we all go down with the sinking ship of globalization, global warming, neo-liberal market economy, quasi fascism of the empire, nuclear race, terrorism, etc.




With Hollywood and traditional mass culture, citizens of the globe get the cinema of simplicity delivered to them. With cinema of complexity people have a direct hand at creating the artistic experience. In that sense it is a participatory cinema -- or it should be. For example, Paradise Now is a by-product of Palestine, France, Germany, Netherlands, and Israel, shot on location in Palestine and Israel. Furthermore, it engages the audience and might send people to libraries and Internet search engines to do some research about the conflict. Boys in the Hood was made in the real ghettos of Los Angeles and made America stare a reality in the face that for so long had swept under the rug (and continues to do so). With Hollywood we are inundated with messages and models for human behavior, such as that deep down in our hearts we all want to be rich (see the upcoming Pursuit of Happiness starring the token actor Will Smith), or that Gulf War I and II are heroic actions for giving the “inept Arabs” freedom and democracy, or all Palestinians are terrorists (see True Lies). These films are part of the patterns of socialization, setting the tone for how people grow up dependent on the status quo.


The truth is that globalism -- not to be mistaken for globalization -- is making the world a smaller place where citizens of the globe can have access to variety of perspectives. Cinema of complexity is available to a good portion of humanity and can be the dissident voice against the monoculture of globalization driven into our psyches via Hollywood. Alejandro González’s Iñárritu’s Babel (2006) can be read as an example of dissident cinema that deals with recursivity of our actions. Edward Zwick’s Blood Diamond (2006) will surely raise some questions about this symbol of romance and love, which is ubiquitous on many American women’s fingers, and men’s ears. Who has to be killed for a Yuppie woman to get a diamond ring and feel loved by her husband?


To be sure, for every Syriana there are many destructive films such as Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto (2006) where Indians are depicted as savages and only Christianity can save the savage -- after a series of bloodbaths, ala Gibson. Unfortunately the pirated copies of Apocalypto are selling like hotcakes on the streets of Mexico City (Ross, 2006). There is an urgent need for a lot more than Blood Diamond to debunk the myth about diamonds. People of the past generations remember Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) where Marilyn Monroe privileges diamonds over men, or Diamonds Are Forever (1971) where James Bond comes to Las Vegas for diamonds. And the recent generations have witnessed Whoopi Goldberg dressed in an outfit with more than 40 million dollars in diamond jewelry (supplied by Harry Winston company, the world’s largest diamond seller). The battles are many, to be sure, and we cannot win them all. But the struggle continues. Will the digital revolution -- with the aid of the Internet -- help liberate cinema and usher in a formidable and complex dissident cinema?


In the final analysis, we have to remind ourselves that we live in an audiovisual culture here in the West as well as the East, the North, and the South. Cinema has been and continues to be a powerful medium that can shape or change a person’s thinking. Cinema of good faith, cinema of complexity -- the dissident cinema -- can usher in new discourses on crisis of humanity and speak the truth to power. After all we are all in this thing together, the personal is the social, and the social is the global. The personal is political, and the political is personal. The notion of self, defining itself in relation to the other, will no longer be valid in the next few decades. We must embrace a new notion. That is, the self is the other, and the other is the self. The foreign becomes domestic and we must communicate as communities not as isolated individuals. Can the self speak the truth to power and merge with the other? I believe it can -- we can. Can the cinema of complexity, the dissident cinema, help to transform the world as we know it. I believe it can.


Tony Kashani is Assistant Professor of Film at the College of San Mateo. He also lectures at Santa Rosa Jr. College on Media Studies, and San Francisco State University on Cinema and Cultural Studies. He is the author of Deconstructing the Mystique: An Introduction to Cinema (Kendall/Hunt Press, 2005). Presently, he is completing a manuscript (to be published) on pedagogy of cinema for social justice. He can be reached at: kashanit@smccd.edu.


Other Articles by Tony Kashani


* Hollywood an Agent of Hegemony: The War Film




[1] Hollywood has been using a paradigm known as Manichaeanism (after its Persian founder Mani “the apostle of God” [c. Ad 216-276]) as stock in trade in many a film (e.g., the Star Wars series). Manichaeans believe that the universe (with humanity at the center) is involved in a colossal and never-ending struggle between good and evil. This is also represented metaphorically as light being the color of good and dark, of course, the evil. It is indeed a convenient philosophy to utilize for latent racist premises in many reductionist films. The good guys are white (light) and bad guys are black (dark).


[2] In the late 1950s and early 1960s technological advances in recording equipment once again gave filmmakers new capabilities to experiment. Portable film cameras that could simultaneously record sound allowed the filmmaker to capture and document happenings as is, where is. This direct approach to filmmaking created a new phenomenon, film now could be the closest thing to the reality of the action it was reproducing. In 1960 French filmmaker Jean Rouch, along with philosopher/sociologist Edgar Morin, took their cameras to the streets of Paris to record the public reaction to the Algerian war. The result of this experiment is a pioneering film, Chronique d’un Ete (Chronicle of a Summer, 1960) igniting a movement known as cinema verite (truth-cinema).


[3] This (parallel editing) is a continuity editing technique used to create cinematic simultaneity while different actions take place at different locations at the same time. The scenes are cut in a parallel mode and by cross-cutting between the two or more locations the simultaneity, linkage between actions, and suspense is created.


[4] Mise en Scéne is a French phrase, literally meaning “putting into the scene.” This term was originally only used in the theater referring to the arrangement of visual entities on the stage. Film critics have adopted the term as an all-encompassing category for visual design and arrangement in cinema, which is the total composition of each individual frame.


One important distinction is that, unlike live theater, which is a three-dimensional art form, cinema is a two-dimensional medium presented on a flat screen. Therefore the mise en scéne in cinema is more sophisticated in a sense that it has to use spacing, lighting, movements, and geometric compositions in order to create the illusion of the third dimension (depth).


The following elements are part of cinematic mise en scéne: acting, sets and locations, lighting, and costume design. Let us look at these elements.


[5] Much of the updated information and data can be retrieved from:






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