Transnational Ecocinema: Film Culture in an Era of Ecological Transformation

Transnational Ecocinema: Film Culture in an Era of Ecological Transformation


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Discussion of Hollywood film has dominated much of the contemporary dialogue on ecocriticism and the cinema—until now. With Transnational Ecocinemas, the editors open up the critical debate to look at a larger variety of films from many different countries and cultures. By foregrounding these films with their economic and political contexts, the contributors offer a more comprehensive and nuanced look at the role of place in ecocinema. The essays also interrogate proposed global solutions to environmental issues by presenting an ecocritical perspective on different film cultural considerations from around the globe.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781841507293
Publisher: Intellect, Limited
Publication date: 05/15/2013
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 6.70(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Tommy Gustafsson is a senior lecturer in film studies at the School of Language and Literature Cultural Sciences, Linnaeus University. Pietari Kääpä is a research fellow in the School of Film and Television Studies at the University of Helsinki. He has published extensively on transnational Finnish cinema, including Directory of World Cinema: Finland.

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Transnational Ecocinema

Film Culture in an Era of Ecological Transformation

By Pietari Kääpä, Tommy Gustafsson

Intellect Ltd

Copyright © 2013 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84150-729-3


Introduction to Transnational Ecocinema

Introduction: Transnational Ecocinema in an age of Ecological Transformation

Pietari Kääpä and Tommy Gustafsson

Recent years have seen the exponential increase of critical books and articles on ecocinema. These range from seminal works on Hollywood cinema (Ingram 2000; Brereton 2005) to books on specific film cultures (as in the case of Lu and Mi 2009, China). Other collections take a more widespread approach (Willoquet-Maricondi 2010, issues of International Studies in Literature and Environment) and contribute to the ongoing proliferation of ecocinema studies. For defining the parameters of ecocinema, Lu and Mi's collection provides a concise but suggestive delineation: firstly, it is a critical grid, an interpretative strategy. Secondly, it is a description of a conscious film practice among a range of different artists and producers. Thinking of the parameters of the field in these terms opens the study to consider films from a perspective that emphasizes their ecological dimensions. It also works to encompass films that have been produced with a participatory ecological dimension in mind. As a burgeoning interdisciplinary form of film studies, ecocinema works to bring back a sense of political participation to a field that has lost some of its explicit engagement with political issues.

While film producers may aim to impart a sense of ecological responsibility to their products, what potential does cinema have for actively challenging environmental deprivation? First of all, film production is a part of the creative industries, and as a form of cultural activity that consumes considerable resources, it leaves a substantial material footprint in its wake. Producers such as Roland Emmerich and James Cameron have recently emphasized the adoption of 'green' approaches for their productions; but does this appoach sufficiently compensate for the extent of the resources demanded by the consumption, the production and distribution of films? Feature films are also often seen as forms of entertainment and, only on occasion, treated as something that takes part in social and political debates. If they do so, they may not be taken seriously as documentaries or even works of literature (fictional or not) would be. This is especially the case with Hollywood, which are often derided for their consumerist ideologies. While audiences are certainly capable of reading films like Avatar (2009) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004) as ecological, they are often only dismissed as 'movies' and not as films with an actual ecological or environmental contribution to make. Perhaps the real and most pertinent question we should ask is not how cinema can make a contribution to global ecopolitics but whether, ultimately, it can do something beyond raise awareness.

One way of attempting to confront this question directly is turning attention to transnational concerns and the approaches they entail. While prolific caricatures see the field as concerned with 'imported' films and esoteric art-house themes, this is more of a hangover of the proliferation and acceptance of Hollywood-type mainstream film culture as the global norm, which, of course, is a typical Western bound notion that neglects the huge cinematic output and distribution of films from Hong Kong, Bollywood and, in the last 20 years, Nollywood, for example. Rather than augmenting the marginalization of transnational film culture as a cultural economic other, we do not take 'transnational cinema' as 'world cinema', implying that it would be considered as Hollywood's other, or as a form of art cinema distinct from the commercial mainstream. Studies in transnational cinema are not only to do with 'art' films, but are rather a result of an increased realization of the importance of cultural flow and circulation throughout film history. They concern not only investigation of thematic influence and distribution arrangements for specific 'national' films but also increased understanding of the ways that global film markets are intertwined and coefficient.

Focusing on what the term 'transnational' implies — border crossings on a wide variety of levels — we explore its viability for ecocinema studies. Firstly, synergizing these considerations enables us to ask how a transnational scope and sense of connectivity may expand producers and audiences' ecological perception and cognitive abilities. In 'Toward an Ecocinema', Scott MacDonald discusses experimental cinema and the challenges it provides viewers, suggesting 'the fundamental job of eco-cinema as] retraining of perception, as a way of offering an alternative to conventional media-spectatorship' (2004: 109). This implies the need for a Brechtian challenge to spectators who are confronted with complex cinematic material that forces them to think differently and asks them to use this cognitive invigoration for politicized purposes.

Our collection does not encourage favouritism of experimental cinema as we consider a range of different types of ecocinema as capable of igniting the necessary ecocritical rethinking. For example, Roberto Forns-Broggi's chapter on political ecodocumentaries and experimental ecovideos about the Latin American conception of 'Good Life' reveals that ecocinema does not have to be 'difficult' in order to be political, and furthermore, that these ecofilms not only have the ability to provoke political thought, but also to move audiences to overcome the way in which society ignores nature.

Indeed, while these experimental films nevertheless propose a distinct formal challenge to viewers accustomed to mainstream cinema, our introduction of the 'transnational' in the transnational cinema does not have to mean difficult films. In fact, it is not the formal qualities of these films that are their most significant contribution. Instead, it is their ability to navigate between a range of different cinematic paradigms that allows them to generate complexity. They call for critical interventions that allow for multiple and contradictory meanings, even in the construction of ecological environmental rhetoric. This is a key intervention in pushing studies of ecocinema out of the somewhat simplistic endorsement of any cinematic product with a 'green' message. If ecocritical film studies want to be taken seriously they need to be prepared to be entirely critical of their own parameters.

Transnational Ecocinemas

A holistic eco-cinecriticism would closely analyze not only the representations found in a film but the telling of the film itself — its discursive and narrative structures, its inter-textual relations with the larger world, its capacities for extending or transforming perception of the larger world — and the actual contexts and effects of the film and its technical and cultural apparatus in the larger world.

(Ivakhiv 2008: 18)

Adrian Ivakhiv's call for a more penetrating and expansive form of 'eco-cinecriticism' is entirely necessary to strengthen the role of ecocinema studies in the academia. These are the types of concerns that transnational films necessarily bring to the analytical table. The process of cultural circulation — how and where the cultural products are made, what sort of content is contained in them, how they are consumed and what sort of social relations this engenders, and how they are reproduced into new material and meanings — is what interests us in this volume. To capture this complexity, different continental-geographical filmic objects stretch from Taiwan and China, Australia, Latin America, Africa and Antarctica to Europe and back to Hollywood in an effort to reveal how transnationalism can show us some of the processes through which circulation becomes ecological.

Lu and Mi's seminal collection Chinese Ecocinema carries a suggestive subtitle — 'In an Age of Environmental Challenge' — designed to provoke readers to respond to political issues that need urgent consideration. The similarities in structure to ours — in an era of ecological transformation — are entirely intentional as we consider the present volume an expansion of work initiated by certain approaches in Chinese Ecocinemas. First of all, we encourage analytical frameworks beyond nations, taking into account the advantages transnational approaches bring. Secondly, our book certainly discusses environmental challenges that are increasingly becoming prevalent on a global scale. But we also emphasize that not only these challenges, but academics' responsibilities in responding to them are undergoing fundamental transformations. Thus, our collection includes both critical perspectives on ecocinema as well as explorations of what ecocritics can aim to achieve with their work. Part of this task is to respond to some of the limitations that persist in this emergent field.

Currently, much of ecocritical work on cinema is too reliant on ideological political readings of texts, which is a mode of analysis originating clearly from literature-based ecocriticism. This is understandable as ecocinema remains an emerging field. As a part of the creative industries, cinema needs to be considered in a much wider context beyond analytical readings. After all, what type of contribution can a subjective reading of a text ultimately have? While such contributions certainly add to the advancement of knowledge on ecocinema, an 'educated' reading still remains one comment amongst many generated by a given film. The contributors of this collection tackle this question head-on while providing their own voices to the discussion. To initiate this sort of rethinking, the chapters in this collection interrogate the political potential of cinema from a range of angles, including reception, distribution, production and thematic content. For example, Ines Crespo and Angela Pereira study the ways European spectators engage with diverse ecocinematic content and adopt it for a range of different purposes. Tommy Gustafsson takes an alternative angle on reception studies, choosing to focus on the ways critical prestige and ecological rhetoric operates in creating awareness around Oscar campaigns and cycles of mainstream ecocinema. Other chapters move to create new avenues for cinematic ecocriticism as they focus on transmedia and interdisciplinary concerns, as is the case with Rebecca Coyle and Susan Ward's study of transmediality in the Australian context.

Audiences, transmediality, distribution practices, documentary, fiction films, art house, and the mainstream are all part of contemporary ecocinema and exploring these areas from a transnational angle will expand the types of approaches and texts that are seen as appropriate for ecocinematic studies. The reasons for such a modus operandi are simple: to interrogate the participatory potential of cinema in ecological debates. In order to unravel some of the ways in which the intersections of transnationalism and ecocriticism advance both fields, our introduction will focus on case studies of recent well-known and not-so-well-known ecofilms, separated into sections on documentaries and fiction films.

Transnational Ecodocumentaries

The concept of transnational cinema, when applied to the production of documentary films, shows certain important variations from the associations created by mainstream fiction film. The documentary has not traditionally been associated with Hollywood as a concept when it comes to, for example, classical narration, subjects, or the claim that the outcome is dreamlike fabrications of 'real life' as has been the case with the feature film. Documentaries and especially ecocritical documentaries such as Travel to Dongsha Islands (2005), An Inconvenient Truth (2006), When Clouds Clear (2006), Encounters at the End of the World (2007) and Home (2009), all discussed in this collection, are on the contrary taken seriously and are often hailed as important regardless of their national origin or subject matter. The 'transnationality' of the ecodocumentary therefore seems to work on the level of transparency, that is, the national origin of the sender does not seem to matter if the subject is 'nature' in a wide sense. This is something that becomes even more evident when considering the main distribution channels for ecodocumentaries, namely television and the Internet.

Since the 1950s, most documentaries have been made directly for television, and those that are produced for and shown on the big screen usually get their biggest audience when they are subsequently aired on TV. BBC's heavily awarded nature/wildlife documentary series Planet Earth (2006) and Life (2009) are cases in point; the breathtaking images and the factual presentation are not aimed at a particular national body but to the world at large, as in 'it concerns us all'. This 'world level' acts as if it is neutral but in reality it is aimed at specific Western audiences, comfortably leaning back at home in their living rooms in front of their television sets. What is more, this also includes the images in the majority of these nature, wildlife and ecodocumentaries; images that put 'nature' on display (and seldom its counterpart, the city) in a way that partly relocates the viewer to the space of the 'Cinema of Attractions', Tom Gunning's idea of early film culture where the images in themselves were more important than the story (2007: 13–20). But it can also be connected to the exotic documentary film (Bordwell and Thompson 2003: 184–185) in the tradition of Nanook of the North (1922) all the way up to the notorious Italian Mondo Cane (1962), where the images of nature are exclusively interpreted through a Western world view. And thanks to the inherent cultural veracity of the documentary, these effects usually stay transparent.

Two ecodocumentaries that highlight these problems, at the same time as they try to resist them, are The Dark Side of Chocolate (2010) and Babies [Bébé(s), 2010] both centring on children as a global concern, but also as a transnational wonder of nature. Both take part in and use a broad selection of international locations for the imagery, which of course creates an aura of transnationality, while it also evokes three concerns central to ecocinema: (1) with all this travelling these documentaries have been very expensive to produce, (2) the carbon footprint left by the travelling challenges the status of these films as ecodocumentaries, (3) the combination of 1 and 2 shows that these documentaries, and most transnational ecodocumentaries alike, are an affair for the wealthy parts of the world, who also, of course, create most of the environmental problems that exist in the world. And no matter how you may twist and turn this situation, it's always going to be a biased one. Among others things because of the fact that the hegemonic privilege to formulate and articulate the agenda or 'the problem' — and therefore the 'reality' — is almost solely located within the confines of Western media (Gustafsson 1989: 22–45). Hence, to create ecological awareness and to educate the public, according to Bryan Norton's notion of environmentalism, the ecological issue must be seen from a more synoptic and contextual perspective (1991: xi), or in this case a transnational perspective.

The Dark Side of Chocolate is a television documentary directed by the Danish journalist Miki Mistrati and the American photographer, director, and human rights activist U Roberto Romano. The film shows a team of journalists investigating allegations of human trafficking and child labour in connection to the cacao industry in the African states Mali and Côte d'Ivoire (which the filmmakers constantly refer to as the Ivory Coast despite the fact that Côte d'Ivoire has been the official English name since 1985). The production of The Dark Side of Chocolate is truly transnational with a number of production companies and countries involved: DR2 (Denmark), NDR (Germany), Danida (Danish International Development Agency that supports communication for development and democracy with ties to UNESCO), MEDIA (the EU support programme for the European audiovisual industry), TSR (Switzerland), SVT (Sweden), YLE (Finland) and ERR (Estonia). In addition to its transnational production history, the locations make this documentary geographically transnational as it is shaped as a travelogue that starts out at a chocolate industry convention in Cologne and then ventures to the 'dark' continent of Africa with stops in Sikasso in southern Mali, Abidjan, the capital city of Côte d'Ivoire, ILO (International Labour Organization) in Geneva, and the Nestle headquarters in Vevey.


Excerpted from Transnational Ecocinema by Pietari Kääpä, Tommy Gustafsson. Copyright © 2013 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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Table of Contents


Part I: Introduction to Transnational Ecocinema

Introduction: Transnational Ecocinema in an age of Ecological Transformation

Pietari Kääpä and Tommy Gustafsson

Transnational Approaches to Ecocinema: Charting an Expansive Field

Pietari Kääpä

Part II: Documentary Politics and the Ecological Imagination

Colorful Screens: Water Imaginaries in Documentaries from China and Taiwan

Enoch Yee-Lok Tam

From My Fancy High Heels to Useless Clothing: ‘Interconnectedness’ and Ecocritical Issues in Transnational Documentaries

Kiu-wai Chu

Ecocinema and ‘Good Life’ in Latin America

Roberto Forns-Broggi

Dimensions of Humanity in Earthlings (2005) and Encounters at the End of the World (2007)

Ilda Teresa de Castro

Part III: Popular Film and Ecology

China Has a Natural Environment, Too!: Consumerist and Ideological Ecoimaginaries in the Cinema of Feng Xiaogang        

Corrado Neri

And the Oscar Goes to…Ecoheroines, Ecoheros and the Development of Ecothemes from The China Syndrome (1979) to GasLand (2010)

Tommy Gustafsson

Part IV: (In)Sustainable Footprint of Cinema

Climate Change Films: Fear and Agency Appeals

Inês Crespo and Ângela Pereira

Envisaging Environmental Change: Foregrounding Place in Three Australian Ecomedia


Susan Ward and Rebecca Coyle

Afterword-Towards a Transnational Understanding of the Anthropocene

Tommy Gustafsson and Pietari Kääpä

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