New Filmic Geographies

Edited by Suzanne Enzerink

Where the World Things Are

Suzanne Enzerink

Mapping Film Traffic

Laura Isabel Serna

Toward a Geopolitical Approach to the Study of Transnational Cinema

Song Hwee Lim

Lebanon’s Shifting Cinematic Landscape

Zeina Tarraf

Netflix and the Transnationalization of Nollywood

Añulika Agina

The Embedded World

Claire Gullander-Drolet

The World Imagined

Jerrine Tan

Late Transnational Cinema: James Baldwin at the Movies

Remo Verdickt and Pieter Vermeulen

Seven Social Landscapes

Caleb Fridell and Katharina Menschick

Bandwidth Imperialism and Small-File Media

Laura U. Marks and Radek Przedpełski


Where does film live today?1  When Warner Bros. announced a deal with HBO Max in December 2020 according to which its content would be released via streaming and in theaters simultaneously reactions were negative. Director Denis Villeneuve captured a general industry sentiment when he wrote that "there is absolutely no love for cinema, nor for the audience here. It is all about the survival of a telecom mammoth." He added, "I strongly believe the future of cinema will be on the big screen, no matter what any Wall Street dilettante says" and that "we humans need cinema, as a collective experience." Many people have visceral opinions about what cinema is and, crucially, where it is and where it can be experienced. Streaming is not it, at least for some auteurs.2 In 2016, director John Chu turned down a huge "seven-figure-minimum payday for each stakeholder" from Netflix for Crazy Rich Asians, noting that he "needed this to be an old-fashioned cinematic experience." Moreover, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has made it infamously difficult for streaming-based releases to qualify for competition.

Resistance to streaming emerges in part from a deep-seated, perhaps naive view that cinema contains within it the power to transform the globe for the better. Such a communal goal is easier to envisage in a collective setting. Cinema has been "often described as the first genuine universal 'language,' capable of restoring humanity to its pre-Babel unity."3 That is not only a lot to put on a medium that for many people remains an excuse to inhale popcorn, but is also plainly false.

Dismissive accounts of streaming ignore the fact that, with streaming services, more nations than ever have seen their content become accessible to global audiences and funded by multinational backers. Because of the small screen, filmic geographies are transforming.

Such changes aren't new. Cinema has always been anchored in geography. One only needs to look at the designations within the field. From "transnational" to "postcolonial," from "Third World" to "Hollywood," from "world" to the ever-more popular "planetary," cinema has been defined by its locations.4 Can we get away from this? Should we want to? Film criticism offers a firm yes to both these questions. Ironically, while dividing the field into neat waves based on geography, film criticism has also been dominated by a desire to relinquish attachment to discrete places. In the lingo of cinema studies, the verb "transcend" is made to do a lot of heavy lifting. No matter whether it is genre, temporality, media format, or borders, when a film or visual text transcends, this is usually considered a good thing. David P. Nichols's recent edited collection, Transcendence and Film, investigates how film as a medium can "summon us to an original experience of how the world is at work."5 Countless articles in cinema and screen culture journals ponder how to locate cinema now that it "transcends national and continental borders."6 There is also a scholarly penchant for showing how individual films transcend. Here, year of release or genre are irrelevant. Contemporary film criticism trains its eye on a wide range, but the common denominator is this insistence on transcendence. John Boorman's Deliverance (1972) "transcends the genre" of eco-horror; Lee Chang-dong's Poetry (2014) "transcends its place of origin"; the Norwegian production Trollhunter/ Trolljegeren (2010) "transcends the borders of a singular nation state"; and the bear horror Backcountry (2014) "transcends its anchoring in Canadian culture and communicates ideas about Western civilization." Leaving behind a particular locale seems to put one on the radar for scholarly appraisal.
Within the industry, too, the global reach and perspective of films are praised. Take for example actor Steven Yeun's recent remark,when asked about the future of Asian cinema, that the increased interest in Asian productions on a global scale is driven by "auteurs who transcend even the boundaries of their own nations." Itis not just film, either. Deborah Shaw and Rob Stone, foundational figures in the field of transnational screen cultures, are set to release a book on the Netflix series Sense8 in June. The subtitle? Transcending Television. I purposefully chose a wide gamut of examples here not to be glib or because I disagree with any of these analyses, but simply to show how pervasive the language of transcendence is.7Where does geography come in? Can we remain attached to locations while seeking some larger truth or commonality? Attention to geography is crucial to avoid erasing the unevenness of global cinema. As Song Hwee Lim writes in his contribution to this cluster, "new geographies cannot mask old histories." The unevenness of the world maps onto who gets to make movies, whose movies get to be watched, and who can (afford to) see themselves on screen. Cinema has always been an unfaithful microcosm of society. Some people see themselves affirmed on screen, but most do not. Some people see protagonists fall in love in their country, dance on the pavements overlooking their city, while others just see the beloved infrastructures they pass daily on their way to the store invaded by violence and horror. Some people hear their language spoken by the actors they watch, but most simply hear English, while others only hear their language spoken precisely when violence is involved (cf. the Obeidi-Alsultany test). What category you fall into is in no small part determined by geography.

Transcendence is a luxury. As entries in this cluster show, some national film industries such as Lebanon's persist despite a gaping lack of infrastructure or support, and are defined by this context. On the other side of the spectrum, some industries are subsidized heavily in a bid to ensure global circulation (such as the Korean Film Council for South Korea), sometimes coming at the cost of what can be screened (China being the most obvious example). As Park Yang-woo, Korea's minister of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, observed, the only remedy to the seeming unchecked growth of US exports like Netflix is to incentivize and help local providers to "go global." This, however, has done little to level the playing field, only adding powerhouse nations at the top. Filmmakers working in countries without funding or infrastructure remain tethered to this geography. The fallacy of transcendence also becomes visible when we encounter films that are dismissed overseas for featuring content seen as objectionable when transported to a different cultural context (one might remember the recent controversy about the Netflix film Cuties here, which cluster contributor Jerrine Tan explored for a different venue).

Yet whereas before Western tastes predominantly dictated what moved into global streams, today regional markets are gaining in significance at the same time that online streaming is experiencing rapid growth. This may seem contradictory, but isn't. To continue with the example of Korea, Korean streaming services are expanding regionally to counter Netflix's dominance. There is a calculated logic behind a more limited geographic aim. As a professor of Media Communication at Sejong University observes, "it is advantageous to first target countries in the same culture area for overseas expansion of the content and platform business." Because of censorship in China, Korean platforms have predominantly targeted Japanese markets. And while it might have been lost in the current fashioning of Netflix as a global hegemon, Netflix, too, initially chose geographically close and culturally comparable locations to expand. Three years after its launch, it moved to Canada first, and a year later added Europe and Latin America. Geography, then, continues to matter strategically, regionally as much as globally. The locality of film has significant implications for global power dynamics.

What is marketed as global is often just American, what is seen as a universal story is instead a singular perspective. Against US cinematic imperialism, local agents strive for relative autonomy. We would do well to remember the words of the production designer that Zeina Tarraf interviewed for her contribution to this cluster: "when you are on the ground shooting the film, there is no constant obsession with the West."

This cluster asks how and why the lexicon for thinking about film has traditionally been routed through metaphors of place and space. It shows that streaming comes with real ecological consequences, often borne disproportionately by the Global South. It shows that filmic geographies are intimately tied to political realities that are uneven at best. At a moment of tremendous uncertainty, when notions of globality and movement have come under pressure amid far-reaching travel restrictions, and notions of self are challenged by increasingly selfish and nationalist scrambles to procure vaccines Canada, for example, has purchased nine vaccines per person it is clear that the world is not yet so global after all. One only needs to look at the map of when the vaccine will be available where, with the Global South painted red and orange, to discern this dismal reality.

The clichéd notion that cinema can transcend borders is imperiled by increasingly stark evidence that borders are not losing significance. In their engagement with geographies from the danger of erasing discrete national initiatives by privileging the global, to the unsettling work of subtitles the essays in this cluster help us to figure out what role geographies play in cinema. Demarcations of privilege continue to divide us. Global reach does not mean global equity.

We must commit to encountering cinema on its own terms and in its own context if we want to move toward a liberated cinematic future.

Suzanne Enzerink (@suzanneenzerink) is an assistant professor of Media Studies and American Studies at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon.


  1. Acknowledgements: I want to thank this exceptional cohort of contributors, who all somehow found the focus to devote time to this in what can only be described as very challenging circumstances. Thanks also to editor extraordinaire Dan Sinykin; we are honored to be one of your last clusters. Finally, thanks to Zeina Tarraf and Anna Thomas for their feedback and assuaging my fears that this intro could not do justice to an exemplary set of essays. []
  2. Villeneuve led a chorus of disenchantment. Christopher Nolan and Judd Apatow were other high-profile critics of the Warner Bros. announcement. []
  3. Paul Willemen, "Introduction to subjectivity and fantasy in action: for a comparative film studies." Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 14, no. 1 (2013): 96.[]
  4. Planetary cinema as a term has been used for over a decade, but seems to be emerging in earnest in the last few years. In 2020, for example, SUNY Oswego had a course with this title, and Goldsmiths a module.[]
  5. David P. Nichols, ed. Transcendence and Film: Cinematic Encounters with The Real, (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2019), 2.[]
  6. Lúcia Naghib, "Towards a Positive Definition of World Cinema," Remapping World Cinema: Identity, Culture, and Politics in Film." edited by Stephanie Dennison and Song Hwee Lim, (London: Wallflower Press, 2006), 30.[]
  7. Even in visions of the future we can discern it. In an article for n+1, Moira Wiegel investigates whether the next frontier is "cinema transcending itself," a transcendence she locates in the genre of slow cinema, productions largely devoid of narrative and dominated by long takes and singular settings. At a glacial pace, these films turn "boredom into a kind of meditation." It is precisely for that reason, Wiegel notes, that these films can transcend national boundaries: the attentiveness required can move the viewer, even if the particular place on screen is unfamiliar. Malika Favre, the French graphic artist who designed a famous February 2020 New Yorker that laments the exclusion of female directors from major awards categories the cover has a woman behind an old-school camera, meeting the reader's gaze both with her eye and her lens–proffers that cinema is about the human condition; "When a movie transcends cultural differences, it becomes great cinema."[]

Past clusters