'Since the birth of film, techniques and ideas were developed all over the world, so surely it cannot be the invention of a particular camera type alone that makes a medium Western 'WikiCommons

In the latter half of this year, my pastimes began to trouble me. It may be a cliché to view 2016 as a year of unprecedented horror, but it feels like the winds are shifting in a different and dangerous direction, all around the world. As a result, political complacency in words and in actions has started to feel like a morally untenable position, complacency feeling like complicity. So, when examining my own preoccupations, culture being a central one, I started to wonder if it was a particularly self-indulgent substitute for action or activism. 

“Culture is not a commodity to be generously given or lent from one people to another. Anyone who seriously engages with it can be said to own it, too.”

Matthew Arnold defined culture as “the best which has been thought and said in the world”, an exploration of which cannot be anything but valuable, and may help us find insights into a time in which it feels like the dark ghosts of the twentieth century are rising again. Furthermore, the arts are enjoyable, emotive and exciting – and, because lots of people all over the world partake in them, they have potential to represent and possibly even change people’s political views. I concluded my introspection with this: culture is hugely significant, but I must not participate in it unthinkingly. Culture should be engaged progressively and not complacently. Easy, comfortable assumptions must be challenged; being ‘neutral’ supports a specific status quo. Pluralistic, democratic aspects of culture, the things that can unite us, must be promoted.  

Film is the ideal medium by which to illustrate this way of engagement, being so easily accessible and globally widespread as an art form. But there are attitudes towards film and cultural ownership that I consider to be damaging, and want to confront. A few months ago on BBC radio a woman referred to cinema as ‘western culture’. This assertion begs the question: what does ‘western culture’ mean? Can a person or group ‘own’ culture when culture is inherently something cumulative and fluid? How does film fit into all this?

Experiments with film began in the 1890s, by pioneering figures like the French Lumière brothers with their famous work from 1895 Train Pulling into a Station, which legend tells us frightened the audience with its unprecedented scale and realism. From the 1890s Japan was producing its own films with technology learnt from cameramen who had worked with the Lumière brothers and built on an existing Japanese visual culture. Since the birth of film, techniques and ideas were developed all over the world, so it cannot be the invention of a particular camera type alone that makes a medium ‘western’. Invention is not ownership. Culture is not a commodity to be given or lent from one people to another. Anyone who seriously engages with it can be said to own it.

Film was born in a boom time for rapid travel. Influences from all over the globe are programmed into the DNA of film. One can track the work of important filmmakers and their influences on other filmmakers across the world. Quentin Tarantino’s films are shot through with influences from Hong Kong cinema. Wong Kar-wai’s Hong Kong movies owe a debt to the French New Wave. Japanese director Akira Kurosawa was influenced by American cinema, and in turned influenced much American cinema after him. He was also a great admirer of his Indian contemporary Satyajit Ray. This plurality may be because the nature of the medium itself is especially flexible and open. There must be movement, but the rest – music, sound, dialogue, choreography – are all infinitely malleable. Film is a vessel that can even carry other discrete art forms within it. Narrow assertions of ownership are unhelpful when referring to a flexible medium that develops so rapidly in form. After all, the very word ‘film’ has begun to refer to an object that is archaic and now redundant in the creation of movies.

If this is the case, why is it that film culture is misconceived as something ‘western’? It’s probable that much of this is down to the nature of film as a commercial and not a merely artistic medium, and that most films people in the UK watch are Hollywood films. It is easy to hear of American movies being exported all over the world, and people in distant countries learning action-movie catchphrases, and consequently view film as something ‘we’ export to ‘them’. Such notions are inaccurate and exacerbate partisan notions which are so easy to hold in such a visibly divided and tribal world. In this series, I will examine aspects of the world of film by considering films from all over the world, and from throughout the ages. Unlike the shelves of your local DVD shop, I will include American and British cinema in the category of ‘World Cinema,’ because to separate the Anglophone community from the rest of the world is the opposite of the approach I want to take. Film is a fusion that can belong to anyone; we must challenge ideas about cultural ownership that seek to further divide us into ‘the west’ and ‘the rest’