This essay was commissioned by Women Make Movies, a New York based media arts distributor. It is excerpted below.


Intercultural cinema at Women Make Movies by Laura U. Marks


There is a lively but hard-to-categorize body of work out there, made mostly by diasporan or "hybrid" artists. This work often uses experimental techniques to try to represent the experience of being in more than one culture, or to translate cultural memories into a new medium. Intercultural cinema is marginal in many ways: political, formally experimental, short rather than feature length, and not belonging clearly to any one constituency or audience. Yet it is the wellspring of emerging hybrid cultures, and also of a rejuvenating cinematic practice. Intercultural artists manage to produce this work, and audiences are able to see it, thanks to distributors like Women Make Movies. What makes these works unique is also what makes it most appropriate to WMM. The very qualities that make these works important—their politics, their formal experiments, their avoidance of easy categorization—also require a savvy marketing strategy in order to bring them together with their audience. In this, Women Make Movies has proven to be one of the most successful distributors of intercultural cinema. Indeed, WMM has become something of an intercultural distributor itself, allowing these uncategorizable works to disrupt its own categories…


      Many intercultural works are short. They struggle in a market oriented toward features or, at the shortest, half-hour television programs, and they rely on a distributor like Women Make Movies that is geared toward short works. Many short independent films are produced as "calling cards" to entice industry to invest in the filmmaker's feature script, but this is rarely the case in intercultural cinema, for several reasons. Some of these films and videos are ephemeral, one-time works by artists who, like Mona Hatoum, usually work in other media. Many of these short, experimental works are self-sufficient, making a point perfectly in 11 or 27 minutes that would be lost in a feature-length production. Since so many of these films and videos are not considered commercially viable because of their subject matter and style, their makers are, ironically, freed from the pressures to court commercial production sites. The pressure to produce a feature, regardless of whether it is appropriate at this stage in an artist's development, has created costly and time-consuming disasters. Some of the artists WMM distributes, including Shu Lea Cheang, Cheryl Dunye, Helen Lee, and Rea Tajiri, "graduated" more or less successfully to feature film production.

       Nevertheless, the large number of short works that constitute the beginnings of intercultural cinema face particular problems of distribution and exhibition. For these short films and videos and short-run theatrical features, independent distributors are crucial. In the U.S., much of this work can be found at Women Make Movies, Video Data Bank, Electronic Arts Intermix, Third World Newsreel, California Newsreel, Canyon Cinema, Arab Film Distribution, Zeitgeist, First Run/Icarus, and other, often small and specialized, usually not-for-profit distributors. In Canada this work is carried by Mongrel Media, Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre, V Tape, Video Out, Vidéographe, Groupe Intervention Vidéo, and others. These distributors deal with festivals, galleries and museums, and academic bookers. Their management styles range from actively marketing film/video packages to complete laissez-faire. Women Make Movies is one of the more active marketers, and considered by filmmakers to be one of the most efficient. Often subsidized by government grants—and dependent on rentals and sales to museums, universities, and other institutions that are themeselves lately in crisis—even the longest established distributors have a precarious existence. Women Make Movies relies on outside funding for only 10% of its income.

      The choice of distributor is an important decision for artists, who may feel a political alliance with one distributor and an aesthetic affinity to the work of another. For example, Rea Tajiri distributes History and Memory with Women Make Movies, Third World Newsreel, and Electronic Arts Intermix, thus reaching the feminist audience, the politicized Asian-American audience, and the video art audience. Crude though such categories sound, cross-distribution is an effective way to guarantee diverse audiences. Women Make Movies is also considered by artists to have one of the most efficient bureaucracies of any non-profit distributor… 


      Intercultural artists often point out that their work cannot be subsumed under European cinematic aesthetics.[1] But when it comes to marketing, which ghettoization is better: to give viewers experimental narrative when they come looking for "the ethnic experience," or to give viewers women of color when they come looking for (white) "art"? Either way, audience expectations will be diverted. For now, Women Make Movies seems to be taking the strategy of "give 'em art" when they come looking for ethnicity, not the other way around.

      Like other experimental cinema, intercultural cinema rarely makes it into commercial theaters. Instead it circulates, often through distributors, to nonprofit and artist-run centers, galleries, museums, festivals, colleges and universities, public and satellite television, community centers, and activist organizations; and frequently through co-sponsored screenings by several of these organizations.10 Feature films do receive runs at art-house theaters.

      Such programs organized by a producer/distributor are a rarity, however. More often the work gets out through informal alliances between film/videomakers, distributors, and programmers: for example, distributors will submit recent work to festivals, or programmers will contact distributors, as well as individual artists, for title ideas. The final responsibility to produce a coherent program lies with programmers, curators, and festival organizers. As I have noted, one result of multicultural funding policies is that artists of color have been forced to deal with identity issues in order to get funded or shown. It is still the rare festival that organizes around intercultural themes instead of identity politics. Programs at festivals such as LA Freewaves and Toronto's Images festival, for example, tend to organize works from very racially diverse video artists, youth makers, and activist groups around idiosyncratic themes.

      Intercultural cinema assumes the interestedness, engagement, and intelligence of its audience. Third Cinema pioneers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino called for a cinema that does not underestimate its viewers but trusts them to interpret the critical intent of its audiovisual images, in a precedent for the critical complexity that characterizes intercultural cinema. "As Che put it, respect the people by giving them quality."[2] Kobena Mercer, similarly, argues that the new Black cinema acknowledges the critical viewing capacities of its audience;[3] Toni Cade Bambara echoes this respect for the audience's critical capacities in her remark that the reward of a demanding film such as Daughters of the Dust is participatory spectatorship and an "empowered eye."[4] Similarly, Victor Masayesva, Jr., argues that Native audiences are impatient for works that will push the expressive boundaries of film and video in order to tell their stories.[5]

      Is there an intercultural audience? Perhaps it is a sort of misplaced concreteness for me to pay more attention to the "live" audiences at festivals and the like than television audiences, which obviously are much larger. But it is at the live events that one can see the audience that has constituted around this work, and this is a thrilling event that the circumstances of virtual audiences just don't match. Screenings of this work at festivals, movie houses, galleries, and conferences witness the building of an audience, often from surprisingly disparate individuals. The varied venues for this work, none sufficient in itself, demonstrate that intercultural cinema cannot be contained by identity politics.

      A look at some of the intercultural films and videos WMM distributes, incidentally all by Asian-North American makers, will give some sense of the difficulty and value of building an audience for intercultural cinema. A look at their booking lists, or where WMM has succeeded in selling or renting them, will give some sense of who the audiences are for these works. WMM's booking lists are like dance cards (if you'll forgive the sexist metaphor), showing who found particular films and tapes appealing: some previewing ("just looking"), some renting the work, some committing to purchase. These lists show that the audiences for intercultural cinema are indeed a rhizomatic network, sometimes bound only by the circulation of a certain film or video among them.

      Great Girl (1994), a film by Kim Su Theiler, retraces a young American woman's journey back to her Korean birthplace. Her search for her home and mother is inconclusive, except for a few small traces, like the scar on the young woman's forehead. A woman who may have been her mother does not recognize Kim Su, but she tells of an accident her little daughter once had with the scissors, which would explain the scar. The film's metaphors of scarring and bandaging suggest that the passage from one culture to another is a series of wounds that do not completely heal, but that become part of the self. A poetic and elliptical film, Great Girl does not provide satisfying answers about the place of adopted Korean children in North America. Instead it invites viewers to let the images wash over without being immediately understood, metaphors in waiting for a meaning that comes later.

      Who, then, are these viewers? The academic audience for Great Girl shows up in sales to SUNY-Oneonta, Monash University, UC Irvine, New York University, and UC Berkeley, and rentals by the Society for Cinema Studies, the Honolulu Academy for the Arts, MIT, Hamline University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Parsons School of Design. One might guess that these renters and purchasers are cinema studies departments, since this "difficult" film invites close formal analysis; it fits into those identity weeks at the end of a semester-long course on experimental film, and those experimental weeks in courses on cinema and identity. Both kinds of course are quite marginal to the cinema studies curriculum. Or it might be shown in Asian Studies courses, or in production classes. The latter are some of the most generous audiences for intercultural cinema, for they are less interested in analyzing a work for its correct aesthetics and politics than in seeing whether it works, and whether its strategies might work for them.

      Great Girl also showed at festivals (including some before its acquisition by WMM, such as at the Toronto International Film Festival) and theatrical engagements: Vancouver's Pacific Cinematheque, the Re-Visions festival in Winnipeg, the Bay Area Multicultural Film Festival, and the North Coast Rape Crisis Center. It appears from the dance card that the biggest Asian film festivals in the U.S., the Asian Cinevision festival in New York and the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Festival, previewed the film but did not exhibit it. Not Asian enough? Too experimental? Likewise with the Margaret Mead festival. Too self-reflexive, not ethnographic enough, not Korean enough? A couple of television stations previewed the film but did not rent it. A little too edgy, a little too short for broadcast? The booking list is as interesting for intercultural cinema's missed encounters as for its engagements, for it shows that while sometimes the apparently most likely audiences will not engage this work, also unexpected audiences will turn up.

      Filmmaker Laurie Wen, who emigrated to the U.S. from Hong Kong when she was 12 years old, begins her documentary The Trained Chinese Tongue (1994) by describing the childhood ambivalence and resentment toward her culture of origin, especially as it was manifested in cooking. But recently she has begun cooking Chinese meals herself, and she tells how now that she frequents Chinese markets, "I've been wondering about people who live with the same sounds and smells:" the old woman wearing six sweaters, the stylish businesswoman, the teenagers trying to learn the names of ingredients. Wen approaches women in the fish market in Boston's Chinatown and asks if they would let her follow them home and watch them cook. The ensuing four encounters demonstrate that commonalities in cultural memory are always mediated around differences, and that food provides not only a source of performative, shared cultural memory but also a marker of many kinds of disjunction; of generation, language, class, and place. In the scene that gives the film its title, the abilities of the tongue to get itself around Chinese words and Chinese food is the subject of most of the conversation. Mr. Bao, a Chinese-American businessman whose wife is from Hong Kong, insists that no Asian can pronounce the words "Fort Lauderdale." But, he says, "we Americans" do not have the facility to extract small bones from a piece of chicken inside our mouths; that is only something a "trained Chinese tongue" can do.

      Let's take a look at The Trained Chinese Tongue's booking list. It has had a successful career: fifteen purchases, mostly by universities, including the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, but also by WNET, Albert Wen (Laurie Wen's dad?), and the Secretary of Defense (did they think it was a Chinese espionage manual?), and 21 screenings at universities, media centers, and festivals. Both the L.A. Asian Pacific Film Festival and the Asian American Film Festival picked this one up: it deals with Asian hybrid identities in a fun and accessible way.

      A less conventional narrative requires more audience wrangling. WMM's catalogue does its best to get words around Helen Lee's My Niagara, but the film's oblique, languid narrative style does not lend itself to the plot-summary format. It does tell a story of a Japanese-Canadian woman who is drawn to a new lover, a Korean man from Japan, and to the cultural tension and dislocation they share. It also tells how she and her father gently come to terms around the death of her mother, whose absence leaves a tangible silence in their house. But what is most magical about this film, and central to its narrative, are visual moments in which time seems to suspend: when Julie and her first lover break up in muttered remarks while the wipers leave ugly streaks on the car windshield; when Julie and Tetsuro find a fish trapped in the sanitary waterworks off Lake Ontario; and (my favorite) when Tetsuro lights two wooden matches, which entwine in flames like star-crossed lovers. Certainly these are hard to evoke in catalogue text. But customers looking for exquisite form may not notice My Niagara in the catalogue, while those looking for a sprightly story may be disappointed when they preview the film.

      Lee's Sally's Beauty Spot and Prey have been hits: the former for its sexy, Bhabha-quoting postmodern critique of identity politics, the latter for its tight narrative featuring the photogenic Sandra Oh with a gun. The booking list for Lee's My Niagara suggests a smaller audience. Let's see: sold to the University of Hawaii, George Mason University, New York University and UC Berkeley. A little nationalist jealousy evident in a preview by the National Film Board of Canada, which surely would like to claim Lee as one of its own. Screenings at a decent handful of universities, the Queens Museum, the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, the Seattle Asian American Film Festival, and the Los Angeles Asia Society. A preview by the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival but no rental. The audience for My Niagara, then, appears to lean more toward the cinéaste crowd than the Asian-diaspora audience…


      Of course, a list of screening venues still only hints at who the audience for these works really is. Unexpected liaisons occur in classrooms and festival screenings. I have an unshakeable belief in the "virtual audience" for film and video, the people who do not comprise a demographic category but who somehow trickle into screenings, get dragged into classrooms, or surf past one of the rare TV broadcasts of short, experimental works and stay to enjoy the film. As I noted, programs and festivals targeted at only a single ethnic group perpetuate ghettoization and do not reflect the increasingly hybrid culture in which we live. These works also miss part of their audience when they are exhibited in experimental or documentary film circuits. The process of coalition building that many organizations have incorporated at the level of production must also be carried out at the level of exhibition. Women Make Movies has begun to reshape the market for independent women's cinema, building a coalition in the works it supports and on the pages of its catalogue. Intercultural films and videos are gradually moving out of defined categories and inflecting the work on every other page. We have good reason to hope that audiences real and virtual will find themselves in coalition around these exciting women's works.


[1]See, for example, Reece Auguiste, Martina Attile, Isaac Julien, and Peter Gidal, "Aesthetics and Politics: Working On Two Fronts?", Undercut, 17 (Spring 1988); reprinted in The British Avant-Garde Film, 1925-1995, ed. Michael O'Pray (Arts Council of England, John Libbey Media, and Luton Press, 1996), 270.

[2] Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, "Towards a Third Cinema," in Movies and Methods. ed. Bill Nichols (University of California Press, 1983), 56. (Originally published as "Hacia un Tercer Cine," Tricontinental, 13 [October 1969].)

[3] Mercer, op. cit.

[4] Toni Cade Bambara, "Reading the Signs, Empowering the Eye: Daughters of the Dust and the Black American Cinema Movement." In Black American Cinema, ed. Manthia Diawara (New York and London: Routledge, 1993), 133.

[5]  Victor Masayesva, Jr., "The Emerging Native American Aesthetics in Film and Video," in "Landscapes," special issue of Felix 2:1 (1995): 156-160.