Paul Willemen once suggested that even the most basic keywords of cinema studies — like montage or realism or mise en scène — are words without any clear meaning or stable referent: rather, in truth, they are fumbling attempts to name and tame some highly complex processes. They are double-talk: gesturing towards aesthetic force-fields, political tangles, cultural traditions and possibilities that are felt, dimly sensed, even enabling in some profound, subterranean ways ... but hard to put into tidy order-words and key concepts.
World Cinema is the latest of these concepts that is more like a crowd or a cloud than something you can simply point to. Clearly, it has to mean more — or less — than simply all the films made in the world at any given moment. At the same time, it has always been an expansive rather than contractive concept — an injunction to look further afield, get out of your box. The term has played a mosquito role: an insistent, nagging reminder in one's brain to get out of that old habit of immediate and unthinking Anglo-Euro-centric reference in all things cinematic. This battle is never entirely won: OK, these days I can instantly name half a dozen Taiwanese directors. But can I name as many Chinese film theorists or Egyptian film critics?
World Cinema has quickly come to mark out the space of a debate. Dudley Andrew wonders whether it is the new, revamped name for what we used to call Third Cinema as theorised within postcolonial theory. Sometimes it stands for Transnational Cinema. More militantly, armies of progressive critics around the world in magazines like Transit (Spain) or Independencia (France) are using the term as a codeword for Resistant Cinema — in whatever form that resistance takes today.
A canon of those film directors at the World Cinema frontline has — for better and for worse — already assembled itself in print, at Festivals, and in university courses: Jia Zhang-ke, Mercedes Álvarez, Pedro Costa, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Nuri Bilge Ceylan... We all know that such listings of auteur-names can be fickle, transient, fashion-driven and reductive; nonetheless, canon formation — and contestation — is a key element in today's 'movie wars'.
For me, World Cinema marks a fracture in the old attitudes for and against Art Cinema. And for the simple reason that Art Cinema came inevitably to be packaged, commodified and woefully watered down into something sewn and sold as Arthouse Cinema — houses where the hospitality shown towards toward global trends has become ever more pinched and conservative. With the result that World Cinema could be defined in many places (Australia among them) as precisely the Art Cinema that no longer finds distribution/exhibition in the Art Houses.
But World Cinema, equally, names other debates and pressure points that are just as urgent. What about all the popular traditions (such as in African cinema) that win local fame but never travel or translate even into the context of an Exotic Other abroad? What about the slowly cooking movement toward a Global Indigeneity? Is there a new conceptual toolkit available in the digital 21st century to refocus the struggle for recognition and dissemination of Women's Cinema or Experimental Cinema? And what about the intermedial reinvention of cinema in the art gallery, on public screens or at YouTube?
Despite every necessary interrogation of the term, World Cinema is not a mere myth. A motto from Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover's book Global Art Cinema is the ticket to this terrain: "We refuse to underestimate the potential of the international".