A Book Review by Thomas Puhr.
It’s easy to see a film as a cultural object, a product, but it is much harder to conceptualize the act of filmmaking as a cultural process in and of itself. But to paraphrase the old adage, the process of creating art is sometimes more important than the end result, especially when considering so-called “minor” cinema, which is often left in a purgatoric, incomplete state. Such is the stance taken by Lars Gustaf Andersson and John Sundholm in their compact, yet densely layered, The Cultural Practice of Immigrant Filmmaking: Minor Immigrant Cinemas in Sweden 1950-1990 (Intellect, 2019).
The authors make this shift of focus clear in their introduction: “One of the main assumptions behind this book is that film and filmmaking constitute a cultural practice, and are ways for the immigrants to find a context for themselves” (5). This inverted gaze (film’s effect on its creators rather than its viewers) is directed toward a marginalized group and their work, with particular attention paid to five workshops which helped immigrant artists get their work off the ground: The Independent Film Group, Cinecooperativo, Kaleidoscope, The Stockholm Film Workshop, and Tensta Film Association (5).
Before addressing these workshops and their output, Andersson and Sundholm justify their preference for the term “minor cinema” over “accented cinema,” the latter of which prioritizes textual analysis over the dynamic cultural occurrences behind the camera (28). Their definition of the former term doesn’t beat around the bush: “These cinemas are minor because minority people produce them in the margins” (26). In keeping with this subtle, but key distinction, they then emphasize the importance to minor cinema of the “public sphere,” an ever-shifting, diaphanous space that “arises from people’s own actual living conditions” (37).
Though all five of the aforementioned workshops are given their due coverage, Kaleidoscope (whose logo adorns the book’s beautiful cover) dominates much of the analysis because its genesis and operation focused solely on supporting immigrant filmmakers (6). Founded by a married couple of Turkish and Finnish descent in 1981, the workshop was “initiated out of the need to articulate the immigrant experience and position, to be able to address a new public and to create a public sphere of relevance” (53). The workshop spearheaded a film festival (ironically, it was easier to raise money for the festival than for the works themselves) and even drafted an elaborate mission statement, quoted in its entirety by Andersson and Sundholm (53-54).
The penultimate chapter, “From Avant-Garde to Communion: Ten Films by Immigrant Filmmakers in Sweden,” summarizes and analyzes actual films produced by the above workshops. As its title indicates, the examples cover a range of genres, including avant-garde experiments (Peter Weiss’ Studie 1, 1952; Maureen Paley’s Interference, 1977), linear narratives (Tensta’s Monos, 1974, and Vill du följa med mig Martha?, 1980; Guillermo Álvarez’s Hägringen, 1981; Reza Bagher’s Havet är långt borta, 1983; Menelaos Carayannis’ Löftet, 1984; Myriam Braniff’s La espera, 1989), and allegorical tales (Muammer Özer’s Jordmannen, 1980; César Galindo’s Fem minuter för Amerikas döda, 1992).
The entire text hinges on this section (it comprises nearly half of the book’s length), so it’s a shame that its organization and style underwhelm. Though Andersson and Sundholm convey their passion through an admirable attention to detail, their analyses verge on the pedantic; each entry follows the same structure of providing background information on the artist, summarizing/analyzing the work itself, and then examining its cultural impact (or lack thereof). To apply this formula to a few films is one thing, but to adhere to it ten consecutive times for nearly 45 pages becomes tedious.
Andersson and Sundholm compensate for this shortcoming, however, by sharing observations that crystallize what makes this overlooked branch of cinema so essential to modern film discourse. Consider, for example, their appreciation for the directors’ difficult task of “finding and presenting a story for an audience that is in becoming – projected rather than represented, as it were” (91), or their ability to articulate, among such disparate examples, the following common goal: “dealing with the outsider position through a harsh self-reflexivity and a discourse on the problems of communication” (100).
Ironically, the most engaging chapter feels the least essential to the book’s architecture. “The Cultural Practice of Minor Immigrant Cinema Archiving” documents the authors’ efforts to archive, and effectively legitimize, the aforementioned films. “The ultimate goal,” posit Andersson and Sundholm, “is to reach archival acknowledgment, and to become a historical artefact” (119). Their documentation of this process elicits some intriguing philosophical questions, such as: If films are, by definition, meant to be viewed, what do we call those to which almost nobody has access? (Andersson and Sundholm 118). The answer, seemingly, is to disappear into nothingness, which is why the authors emphasize the importance of not only archiving, but also of screening these works (122).
The Cultural Practice of Immigrant Filmmaking concludes with a reiteration of how unique the films analyzed are, not so much for their aesthetic value as for their social and historical significance. In a cinematic landscape where Sweden and Ingmar Bergman are virtually synonymous, this little book offers a stirring reminder that these other pieces of art deserve their own space. They need to be preserved and seen.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.