Transnational Cinemas: Deborah Shaw Talk and Workshop, Durham University

Last week – amidst the chaos of A LOT of exam marking – I had the pleasure of attending a talk and workshop on the topic of transnational cinema delivered by the brilliant Deborah Shaw, Reader in Film at the University of Portsmouth. These events were organised by the World Cinema and Cosmopolitics research group, an interdisciplinary research cluster in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at Durham University, coordinated by Abir Hamdar, Francisco-J. Hernández Adrián and Dusan Radunovic. Having found these events particularly productive and inspiring at such a challenging and intensive time of year, I wanted to write a post to reflect on some of the topics of discussion that arose from Deborah’s talk and the related workshop. This post by no means accounts for the breadth and depth of the discussions that took place over the two events but rather focuses on what, at least for myself, were the salient points addressed.

Deborah’s talk was entitled ‘Transnational Cinema: Mapping a Field of Study’ and focused on the development of the transnational paradigm in Film Studies by exploring three foundational essays that contributed to the establishing of this theoretical framework and then offering an overview of where the field is now with examples of the kind of work people are currently doing in this field. Deborah began by noting that the breadth of this field is at once a strength and a problem. She traced the roots of transnational cinema studies to 2005 onwards with herself, Andrew Higson and Mette Hjort all publishing important definitional works on the topic. But she noted too that there are examples of work prior to this date that were dealing with the transnational as a concept, citing Hamid Naficy’s work in particular. She discussed the extent to which the turn to the transnational in the context of film studies can be located in a wider cultural context, observing that Tim Bergfelder has described our discipline as being late to the table with its focus on the transnational. Shaw tentatively suggested that this is the case because many film scholars either have their roots in language-based disciplines/area studies in which the nation is a central concept or in arts departments which focus on the aesthetic rather than the sociological.


Noting that cinema was of course transnational since its inception but that the field of transnational cinema studies is itself new, Shaw then turned to three definitional essays she views as key in terms of understanding this particular theoretical paradigm. The essays in question are Mette Hjort’s ‘On the Plurality of Cinematic Transnationalism’, Shaw’s own ‘Deconstructing and Reconstructing “Transnational Cinema”’ and Will Higbee and Song Hwee Lim’s ‘Concepts of Transnational Cinema: Towards a Critical Transnationalism in Film Studies’. Shaw summarised the key points of these articles as follows. For her, Hjort creates a series of categories to help us think through transnational cinema in which the concept of the national is central. Shaw also pointed out that Hjort’s key idea is that transnationalism can help to sustain smaller nations’ cinemas through collaboration but acknowledged too that the value system applied by Hjort is potentially problematic, insofar as the scholar outlines examples of transnational cinemas that are “better” than others. Shaw highlighted that the aims of her own piece were to rescue the term transnational from overgeneralisations and to avoid casting art films (over mainstream Hollywood) as uniquely privileged sites of transnational filmmaking. With regard to Higbee and Lim, she outlined, among other things, their emphasis on the Anglophone in transnational cinema scholarship as well as the newness and precariousness of transnational film studies.


Shaw concluded her talk by turning from definitions to applications and outlining the fact that there are now 179 departments or programmes in the US with global/transnational cinemas and television as objects of study before listing the various panels at the 2015 and 2016 SCMS conferences on the topic of transnationalism. The ensuing discussion proved lengthy and very rich, in which those present raised questions about non-nation transnational cinemas as a possible category of analysis in relation to the transnational, about censorship and transnationalism and about the role of funding with regard to the transnational.

Three Amigos

At the workshop the following day, the discussion considered various aspects of transnational cinemas. Adrián launched the discussion with a quotation from Deborah’s book The Three Amigos about the role of language and the multilingual in the work of the three directors upon which the book focuses (Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón) which led to a conversation about language and subject matter and how these are often tied to production issues such as funding. Also considered, in more detail than the previous day, was the question of the nation and its relation to the transnational. This then led to Deborah citing Rosalind Galt on how to teach film through a transnational framework, with Abir supporting this move by noting that in her experience, teaching transnational cinema often requires giving students some of the national context as well as raising important questions about where to locate certain cinemas – such as Kurdish cinema. Deborah’s response was that we should not shy away from these problems, but rather raise them as issues/questions when teaching such works/cinemas. Abir’s musings about location prompted me to raise the question of space in relation to the transnational as it was a concept that had encroached on the fringes of our discussions over the two events without explicitly being addressed. I was interested in particular in how transnational cinemas evoke space at an aesthetic level as well as at a conceptual level. This once again led us back to subject matter with Dora – a colleague from the German department – pointing out how in the German context, national history (specifically National Socialism) constrains the transnational.


All in all, these events were not only a welcome break from endless piles of to-be-marked exams, but were also extremely productive in terms of thinking through the complexities of transnational cinemas as a framework and proved particularly rich precisely because of the interdisciplinary character of those present. I look forward to seeing – and hopefully participating in – whatever events the World Cinema and Cosmopolitics group organise in the future.


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