Resident Expert: Asian Cinema

Following the close of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival (ADFF), Salaam checked in with NYU Abu Dhabi Associate Professor of Film and New Media Dale Hudson to discuss Asian cinema, and what makes great film.

Professor Hudson's research examines film and new media through transnational and postcolonial frameworks, bringing film theory in dialogue with critical race and animal studies. He also programs films from the MENASA (Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia) regions, for the NYUAD Institute, serves on the pre-selection committee for the ADFF, is a digital curator for the Finger Lakes Environment Film Festival (FLEFF), and coordinates NYUAD's Film and New Media Series, which hosts Essential Cinema.

What makes great Asian cinema? What are the individual components to consider?

Asian cinemas range from major commercial film industries in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Turkey and, of course, India, where several of the world's largest industries are located, so classifying Asian cinema as a unified body of work or series of practices is challenging. Asian cinemas also include the work of independent filmmakers and media collectives throughout the super-continent that we call "Asia." Iran, Palestine, Taiwan, Thailand, and other states, for example, have globally recognized art films.

In addition to narrative features, Asian cinemas include documentaries, experimental films and videos, and narrative shorts. The sheer volume and diversity of Asian film and media points to the limits of solely defining cultural productions by continents, regions, or states. If we try to describe film by continents, we suggest that there is something inherently similar between Vietnamese film and Lebanese film, for example, or between Sri Lankan film and Malaysian film.

Other terms, however, also have limitations. Ethnocentric terms like "Arab cinema" and "Chinese cinema" can also assume commonalities and obscure differences. At the same time, such terms can be strategically useful to correct past misperceptions and misunderstandings. The same applies to terms like "African cinema" or "Latin American cinema," especially when these terms are used in the singular.

Where does Asian cinema stand in the global film industry (economically, popularity-wise, etc.)?

From the standpoint of popularity, Asia is the center of film. Not only are most films made in Asia, but most films are screened in Asia. From Hong Kong films in western Africa, to Hindi films in the former Soviet bloc, Asian films have also always been popular outside Asia, competing with (and often winning against) Hollywood, in spite of the unfair trade advantages that Hollywood films receive. During the 1970s, Hong Kong films even topped the highly protected US theatrical market. Today, India is an important node for global film culture, particularly the Tamil and Hindi language industries. South Korea is another node. These nodes function alongside others in places like Paris and New York. Cinephilia in India and South Korea are perhaps only rivaled by cinephilia in Nigeria today.

Economically, Asian cinemas do not have the same power as Hollywood, which is organized by transnational media corporations with headquarters in places like Canada, France, Japan, and the United States. The Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema (NETPAC) was launched in 1990 to galvanize support for Asian cinemas. In addition to awards at 28 international festivals, including the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, NETPAC organizes conferences and publishes the journal Cinemaya as well as books. Since the 1990s, the number of English-language academic journals and monographs on Asian cinemas has increased phenomenally.

What does the future of Asian cinema look like?

Asian cinemas are going to have many different futures. Commercial industries like Bollywood and Hong Kong have adopted production values that more closely resemble Hollywood's, though they still retain the visual styles and narrative structures that have made them globally popular for generations.

China is also edging closer to competing with Hollywood on its own terms. Japan and South Korea are producing films that have appeal far beyond their historically regional scope. South Korean television dramas known as "K-dramas" are incredibly popular in the UAE. Other industries, such as those in Iraq, Pakistan, and Syria, have been interrupted by economic and political events. With relatively inexpensive digital cameras and editing software, new voices have entered the conversation, including some of the first feature films made in particular languages or set in particular locations in India. In some ways, they follow a Nollywood model from Nigeria rather than a Bollywood, Kollywood, or Lollywood models from elsewhere in South Asia.

The advent of video streaming and downloads have posed a challenge to theatrical exhibition and television broadcast, which were more easily controlled. In the malls here in Abu Dhabi, for example, we rarely have access to films other than Bollywood, Kollywood, Hollywood, and Egyptian ones. While it's certainly more diverse in some ways than the Hollywood-only fare of most US cinemas, it's sometimes less diverse in other ways.

How did you get into Asian cinema? Why does it appeal to you?

I love learning about different kinds of film, so it was inevitable that I would love Asian cinemas. I also teach film studies, so I introduce students to the vast range of films that have been produced around the world since 1895. This point is particularly important at NYUAD since our students come from more than 100 different countries and may go on to live and work in more than 100 different countries. Think through terms of comparison rather than terms of fixed rules is useful in this regard.

The intellectual history of thinking about and through film has always been globally heterogeneous, and I strive to represent that history in the ways that I structure my classes, often in contrast to English-language textbooks about film history that minimize and marginalize Asian cinemas. During the early years of the field of film studies, scholarship often focused on European, Hollywood, and a few examples from East Asian and South Asian film history, as if these cinemas alone told a complete history of cinema.

Today, we think more expansively and comprehensively. NYUAD's globalized curriculum offers a great opportunity to rethink what constitutes the field. It's an intellectual responsibility that, fortunately, is incredibly engaging both emotionally and intellectually. I still remember the first time that I screened films like Wong Kar-wei's Chungking Express, Rakhshan Banietemad's Under the Skin of the City, Mehboob's Mother India, Dariush Mehrjui's Gaav, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Mysterious Object at Noon, Raj Kapoor's Awaara, Tewfik Saleh's The Dupes, and Omar Amiralay's The Chickens. These films were transformative to my thinking, since they did not conform to the "rules" of film that I'd read in film histories that traced a single evolutionary thread of filmmaking from the Lumières, to classical Hollywood, to European new waves. When I teach my classes, I don't exclude this thread, but I weave it with some of the others who were neglected by or unknown to early film historians. Comparative approaches open thinking to the excitement of learning about difference, not in terms of cultural relativism, but it terms of multiple histories and intersections.

Are you working on any projects at the moment? If so, what are they and do they relate to Asian cinema?

I've just finished a book with Patricia R. Zimmermann called Thinking through Digital Media, which is scheduled to release in April 2015. Some of the most innovative digital media — some of which we still call "film" even though it's shot, edited, and projected digitally — comes from Asia. The book examines Saudi web serials, Iranian narrative shorts, Indonesian experimental videos, Palestinian info-graphics, Chinese machinima, and the work by media collectives like Sarai in Delhi and and CAMP in Mumbai.

As we discuss in the book, CAMP's From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf transforms documentary practice and has become one of the most exciting films in recent years. My colleague and partner Sheetal Majithia and I are taking our classes — The Postcolonial Turn and Understanding MENASA Film and New Media — to visit CAMP and meet its founders Shaina Anand and Ashok Sukumaran, whose thinking about and through film moves fluidly between artists, intellectuals, and activists.

I'm also writing a few articles on filmmaking in the UAE. One is developed from a paper that I presented at American University in Beirut last spring; another will develop from a paper that I'll present at the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore next fall. The articles develop from my research and participation in film culture here, including the special collection of films and other materials related to the ADFF at the NYUAD Library. I've been working with Virginia Danielson, Rengi Jacob, Rosel Erese, and Nicholas Martin, along with student research assistants Amani Alsaied, Hasan Nabulsi, Sala Shaker, Rabha Ashry, and especially Rend Beiruiti on collecting every film screened at the festival, including the shorts in the Emirates Film Competition, which actually predates ADFF. This collection includes NYUAD and NYU New York faculty, including Leonard Retel Helmrich, who won the Black Pearl for Best Documentary in 2011, and will now include its first NYUAD student filmmaker Ayaz Kamalov, whose Capstone film was accepted into the student documentary section this year. This year's ADFF also screened films by my colleagues Alexis Gambis, Linda Mills, and Gail Segal — two of which starred NYUAD student Shakhbout Al Kaabi — so the GNU (Global Network University) is becoming a part of Emirati film history.