Lenuta Giukin, Janina Falkowska, and David Desser (eds):
Small Cinemas in Global Markets: Genres, Identities, Narratives.

Lanham, Boulder, New York, London: Lexington Books, 2015. 294 p.

Andrea Virginás

Keywords: small cinemas; world cinema; production studies; aesthetics; audiences; film stars; comparative methods.

The joy of delving into a volume of heterogeneous studies that radiate towards centripetal and even contradictory directions is immense. However, this joy is matched by the difficulty of composing a review in linear form for such a work, of finding a description that does it full justice while still preparing future readers for the many questions it leaves unanswered. If one were to strictly apply Mette Hjort and Duncan Petrie’s grid of filters – as presented in the paradigm-building The Cinema of Small Nations (2007) – based on area, population, GNP per capita, and the formative experience of having been dominated by other nations, only a portion of the national cinemas analysed in Lenuta Giukin, Janina Falkowska, and David Desser’s volume would qualify entirely as small cinemas: namely, the cinemas of Greece, Bulgaria, Croatia, Bolivia, Lithuania, and Hong Kong. In contrast, Romanian cinema signals the outer limits of the Hjort-Petrian concept1, while French, Polish, and Indonesian cinemas, as well as the various East African cinemas covered in the text cannot be conceptualised as small national cinemas on this basis, to say nothing of the categories of “personal-screen cinema” theorised by Steven Wingate (Giukin, Falkowska, Desser 2015: 231-246) and “small screen films” (J. C. S. Castanheira in ibid: 247-258) that cannot be deduced from The Cinema of Small Nations at all.

The first chapter in the four-part volume is Catherine Douillet’s “Gender and National Identity Politics in Inch’Allah Dimanche’: Transnational Feminist Quests and Calls for a New French Hybridity”, an interpretation of Yamina Benguigui’s partly autobiographical 2001 feature film. Centered on the character of Zouina, an Algerian woman who reunites with her husband in France and is expected to follow the strict Arab-Islamic rules for married women, the film follows her struggles trying to fit in a small town in Picardie. An example of the Maghrébin cinema in France – which we might identify, based on the editors’ proposal, as a “niche-cinema” within a national industry (Giukin, Falkowska, Desser 2015: xi) – Zouina’s “coming-of-age story” (ibid.: 3) fits most neatly into the Hollywood vs. small cinema dichotomy postulated on the first page by the editors, since it “marks a departure from Hollywood films as it goes beyond fixed, clichéd representations of Arab males and females” (ibid.: 15).

Janina Falkowska’s “New Cinema of Nostalgia in Poland” refers to three Polish films made in the late 2000s (Rewers / Reverse, Borys Lankosz, 2009; Różycka / A Little Rose, Jan Kidawa-Błoński, 2010; and Operacja Dunaj / Operation Danube, Jacek Głomb, 2009), which are identified as “mourning [...] the nation-state with its shadowy past, the socialist state”, by a “regressive nostalgia” that is “revealed in the attention paid to minute details in the recreation of the past, including set designs, costumes and music, even in the way the actors perform the roles” (ibid.: 19), and enjoyed popularity with diverse segments of the domestic audience not least because of their successful employment of comedy and melodrama genre elements.

Lydia Papadimitriou’s “The Power of the Local: Greek Documentaries in the 2000s” is a detailed study of two films (Agelastos Petra / Mourning Rock, Filippos Koutsaftis, 2000, Greece and Parvas: Agoni Grammi / Parvas, Gerasimos Rigas, 2009, Greece) which caused surprise by their relative longevity within cinemas and being awarded with domestic festival prizes, despite lacking any serious marketing campaign. Papadimitriou’s chapter provides well-supported insights into the functioning of small cinemas, as “[t]he two films represent ‘small cinema’ in more ways than one: they are small in terms of production size and budget – not only by international but by Greek standards as well; they are both documentaries – an often overlooked and marginalized cinematic genre; and, last but not least, they are cinematic products of a ‘small nation’ (Hjort and Petrie 2007)’ (Giukin, Falkowska, Desser 2015: 33). In this sense, together with the Bulgarian documentary films that constitute the topic of Marian Țuțui’s chapter “New Bulgarian Documentary”, the Greek films definitely circumscribe a 21st century Balkan regional variant of the documentary genre.

Cătălina Florina Florescu’s “Police, Adjective: A Journey and a Halt Straight to the Center of Words” exemplifies a perspective that recurrently appears in the volume: a perspective that does not engage with debating provocative questions regarding the paradigm of ‘small cinema’, but, rather, considers this a default characteristic of films not produced in Hollywood. Florescu’s main preoccupation is uncovering the moments in Corneliu Porumboiu’s 2009 film (Polițist, adjectiv / Police, adjective, 2009, Romania) that attest that “democracy [cannot] bloom if relics of the past are still part of people’s routine” (ibid.: 53), including the usage of language in dialogues, in an effort to capture “the presence of the thought” “in modern cinema” (ibid.: 56).

Lenuta Giukin’s “Identities in the New Romanian Cinema” situates Romanian culture between “Eastern (the Russian and Ottoman empires)” and “Western powers (the Austrian, Hungarian or later Austro-Hungarian empires)” (ibid.: 68), exemplifying this dynamic with communist-era, western-style heroic films (Sergiu Nicolaescu’s 1966’s Dacii / The Warriors, Romania or his 1974 Nemuritorii / The Immortals, Romania), a type of film that consistently would gather several million viewers per release during communist-era running-times, but also through Cristian Mungiu’s 2002 Occident (Romania). The Romanian films examined by Giukin, similarly to the popular Polish works highlighted by Falkowska, constitute the transition zone from a small to a midsize, or perhaps even a major national cinema that has a mainstream/popular domestic segment; however, the fascinating possibility of such a development unfortunately remains unexplored.

Andrés Laguna Tapia’s “Bolivian Road Movies, Travel Chronicles” is a well-documented short history of Bolivian cinema. However, it does not seriously reflect on the question of its existence as a small national cinema. Characteristic are rather the efforts (on the part of the author) to integrate Bolivian cinema (in)to the globally regional Latin American cinema.

The last chapter in the second part (“Identities ”) is Renata Šukaityté’s “The Apparitions of a Day Gone by and the Stasis of the Present in the Films of Šarūnas Bartas”. Departing from Ackbar Abbas’ theorising of Hong Kong cinema as “the déjà disparu space” (ibid.: 107), the author analyses the ways in which post-Soviet collective identity construction enfolds in the films of Bartas made in 1990s and 2000s. Šukaityté’s chapter is perhaps the most theoretically elaborated in its examination of the effects of small national status upon the poetics of film, as this quote referring to Bartas’ 1995 Koridorius / Corridor (Lithuania) attests: “Film editing intentionally lacks logical connections to give an impression of spontaneity and uncertainty of the newly crystallizing (from former colonizer and colonized) nation and state (undergoing the process reterritorialisation)” (ibid.: 113).

The third part of the volume starts with David Desser’s “A New Orphan Island Paradise: Hong Kong Cinema, and the Struggles of the Local, 1945-1965”, an article which aligns well with the production-oriented perspective of Hjort and Petrie’s concept of small cinemas. Desser examines in detail both the Cantonese- and Mandarin-language films made on the island from the 1910s onward, concentrating specifically on the titular two decades, when both Hollywood/American and Japanese industry involvement as well as Chinese mainland repressions coloured the conditions of this paradoxical small cinema. Desser’s study manages to effectively convey the political, ideological, and financial limitations that faced this doubly-colonised cinema. Undermining the dichotomy of Hollywood vs. small cinema, Desser demonstrates that cross-influences were numerous, characterising for example the 1960s film star Yeh Feng as “something like the Marilyn Monroe of Hong Kong cinema (other comparisons are to Kim Novak)” (ibid.: 144).

Nikica Gilić’s “New Croatian Cinema: Literature and Genre in the Post-Yugoslav Era” also seriously engages in examining the consequences of the small cinema paradigm when stating that post-Yugoslav Croatian cinema is mostly “genre film, one of the chief tools of cinematic populism” (ibid.: 151), thus going counter to the algorithmic conclusion that “a small cinema, one organised in a non-commercial model would sooner or later veer towards modernism” conceived of as arthouse cinema (ibid.). Gilić offers an exhaustive panorama of the production and reception of children’s films, war (or partisan) films, historical films, thrillers, comedies, and dramas, concluding that “it is quite often precisely the popularity of literature that is supposed to guarantee the popularity of a film” (ibid.: 164).

Tito Imanda’s “The State Market and the Indonesian Film Industry” elaborates on a cinema that caters to a domestic audience of 260 million people. On numeric grounds, Indonesian cinema cannot be compared to the post-Soviet Lithuanian cinema with its 2,8 million domestic viewers, nor is it reasonable to compare it to Greek cinema’s audience of ten million. Seemingly, common experiences of dictatorship (as in the case of Indonesia and Lithuania), or the fact that, like in countries such as Greece, Indonesia includes rural areas with limited access to cinema offer the basis for Imanda’s analysis of Indonesian cinema within the framework of small national cinema. The main result of the Indonesian case study is that it presents counterarguments that not only Hollywood cinema, but also those of Bollywood and Hong Kong might be dominant in various domestic markets.

The last chapter that takes seriously Hjort and Petrie’s assertion that a small cinema is tied to a national cinema industry and not to a particular mode of creation or poetic method is Milica Slavkovic’s “Filmmaking in East Africa: Focus on Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda”. This extremely well-documented study proves to be a good initiation for anyone unfamiliar with but interested in this particular regional cinema, while also tackling questions crucial for its specific researchers: the fate of video halls and VJs in the era of internet, and the film labs initiated by American and European institutions that find the hidden gems of East African filmic talent and polish them into festival film successes (ibid.: 203), thus replicating colonial structures.

The last two chapters are fully unrelated to Hjort and Petrie’s small cinemas paradigm, as both theorise small dimension screens, the employment of which is not exclusively geography-, history-, politics- or budget-dependent. Steven Wingate’s “The Lost Origins of Personal-Screen Cinema” makes use of the sci-fi set-up in Wim Wenders’ Bis ans Ende der Welt / Until the End of the World (1991, Germany, France, Australia, USA) to understand the qualities of “those images we desire most on those intimate screens [that] reflect and reveal the inner workings of the self” (ibid.: 232), and definitely do not intend to use “the tropes of traditional feature cinema” as many examples of “cell phone cinema” actually do (ibid.). Wingate’s family-tree for “personal-screen cinema” comprises the written (nonfiction) essay, the lyric essay, but also essay films, the video essay, prose poetry, flash fiction, and experimental video, advising future creators and critics that “the personal-screen cinema” should, among other things, “cultivate [...] a visual aesthetic that most resembles the human unconscious” (ibid.: 243). The final chapter of the volume, J. C. S. Castanheira’s “The Size of the Screens: Technologies and New Models of Seeing and Hearing”, follows the change of screens in cinema history and classifies various modes of attention these changes entail.

As they explicitly state in the “Introduction”, Falkowska and Giukin intend to expand the basic term of their volume – “small cinemas” – beyond the meaning and canon devised by Hjort and Petrie. In their view, the defining characteristic of any small cinema is that it aims to “affirm uniqueness within oppositional practice frames (facing Hollywood’s powerful system)" (ibid.: ix.). This leaves us with “productions ‘opposed to’ the behemoth of Hollywood cinema” (ibid.: vii). Yet audiovisual systems of creations such as film are not necessarily functioning in an oppositional mode; furthermore, “the Hollywood behemoth”, facilitating, even thriving on co-productions, cannot be exclusive and monopolistic anymore in an era of digital production and streaming platforms. Finally, across the wide range of historical epochs and geographical regions in which films have been produced, cinemas other than Hollywood may well have been – or continue to be – much more dominant on local and regional levels. This last point is wonderfully demonstrated by David Desser, as he discusses the strained relationship between Hong Kong and Japanese cinema throughout the 1950s-1970s, as well as the fact that Bollywood/Indian peninsula productions have actually outnumbered those from Hollywood in the 21st century, and that the number of Chinese audience in Chinese cinemas rivals that of Hollywood films worldwide (e.g. excluding Chinese cinemas).

In the “Introduction”, Falkowska and Giukin imply the relatedness of their key concept, small cinemas, to a large number of further oppositions – oppositions based on content, form, narrative strategy, aesthetics, political affiliation, national origin and/or culture, culminating in the assertion that “[o]verall, the idea of art house small cinema is associated with the experience of the limits, the unusual or the original, and often with a statement of independence and resistance to commercialism” (ibid.: xiv). With this, one of the most important drawbacks of thus leaving behind the objective numeric model presented in the 2007 The Cinema of Small Nations becomes evident: namely, that the systematic description of small cinema aesthetics, the analysis of how production and poetics can intertwine, together with the regional patterns that interdependent small cinemas create, lose their relevance for research and remain unprobed.

Andrea Virginás

Sapientia University

andrea.virginas@kv.sapientia.ro, avirginas@gmail.com


This work was supported by a grant of the Romanian Ministry of Research and Innovation (CNCS – UEFISCDI), Exploratory Research Project nr. [PN-III-P4-ID-PCE-2016-0418, PNCDI III].


Andrea Virginás is associate professor in the Media Department of Sapientia University (Cluj-Napoca, Romania), with an MA in Gender Studies (Central European University, Hungary, 2002, Gendered and sexualized aspects of the ‘high art/mass culture’ divide) and a PhD in Literary and Cultural Studies (Debrecen University, Hungary, 2008, Crime genres and the modern-postmodern turn: canons, gender, media). She is member of board for film studies at Cambridge Scholars Publishing. Her research concerns film cultures in mainstream and peripheral contexts, feminist film theory, cultural trauma theory, analog and digital media theory. Latest publications: Cultural Studies Approaches in the Study of Eastern European Cinema: Spaces, Bodies, Memories (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016, editor), Gendered transmediation of the digital from S1m0ne to Ex Machina: 'visual pleasure' reloaded? European Journal of English Studies Vol. 21 2017, issue 3, 288–303.


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Suggested Citation

Virginás, Andrea. 2018. Review: “Lenuta Giukin, Janina Falkowska, and David Desser (eds). Genres, Identities, Narratives.Women at the Editing Table: Revising Soviet Film History of the 1920s and 1930s (ed. by Adelheid Heftberger and Karen Pearlman). Special Issue of Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 6. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2018.0006.116

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/

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