Queering the Globe: A conversation with Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover on Queer Cinema in the World
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from Film Quarterly Winter 2016, Volume 70, Number 2
From the introductory pages of their cowritten book Queer Cinema in the World, Karl Schoonover and Rosalind Galt plot a course for their readers by mapping the themes they will address throughout the book: counterpublics, covert and overt identities, and the legibility of sexuality and politics across and between different (social, political, economic, national, regional, linguistic) cultures and different cinematic cultures. As one might expect, the paths are not direct. They are many and varied. And yet, in the end they bring the reader to an important convergence point: a creative, productive, theoretical, and practical common ground on which conversations about diverse cultural and individual anxieties that have emerged in response to a flattened (that is, commoditized and gentrified) sort of twenty-first century cinematic homonormativity can be examined, reconsidered, and reimagined.
Galt and Schoonover conceived and developed this book through a queer critical lens that invites questions and does not pretend to know—or desire to know—every possible outcome. Queer is neither adjective nor noun for Galt and Schoonover. Queer is a verb, and a transitive one at that. Queering the world and queering cinema studies are active processes in which Schoonover and Galt delight as theorists, historians, and consumers of media. To extend the travel metaphor a step further: they are intrepid, genial travel guides, and so much more. By page four, their adventure course is set:
“To propose a queer world cinema is to invite trouble. The combination of terms provokes a series of anxieties about the certainty of knowing and the privilege of position; it raises fears of mistranslation, of neocolonial domination, of homogeneity and the leveling of difference. It suggests the forcing of meaning or the instrumentalization of film aesthetics in support of a limiting identity politics.”
This explanation of the stakes hint at the ways in which the authors will combine words and ideas that other scholars have often avoided intertwining. They propose that to continue to use the word queer as a verb—as has become more common in cultural studies and cinema studies—one must also consider a doubly transitive action. As a queering of the world occurs, Galt and Schoonover insist that there must be a commensurate worlding of the queer.
In this vernacular, world too becomes a verb, and it works. For the 1980s child writing this review (and I am sure I am not the only one who might commingle these pop culture references), worlding the queer is rather like “gleaming the cube”—pushing the limits, sometimes dangerously.1 In the case of Queer Cinema in the World, this limit pushing is absolutely productive and provocative. Queer Cinema in the World covers so much ground that it is difficult to encapsulate the project here.
While there are only six chapters in the 392-page book, each chapter is almost dense enough to be its own monograph and each is based on themes that have a way of intertwining with each other. Consider: queerness and geopolitics; the emergence of queer film festivals and the ways in which these festivals have reimagined global cinematic cultures; allegory, narrative and a queer public sphere; queer genres and the global popular; queerness and queer cinema as affect; and last but not least, “The Emergence of Queer Cinematic Time.” This sixth and final chapter encourages the reader to engage with both the virtual and actual ways in which diverse global cinematic practices have queered interpretations of genre, time, and space while also shifting cultural (and political) economies of scale. Because this book examines the emergence of queer cinemas according to thematic structures, the reader can chart a course through this volume in any number of ways that allow one to be untethered from a teleology of purposeful firsts, bests, or definitives.
This methodology itself warrants mention. Midway through the book’s introductory chapter the authors cite Dipesh Chakrabarty, whose Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton University Press, 2000) they found useful for their reframing of world cinema that doesn’t necessarily privilege Europe and European cinematic practices. Their attention to—and fresh readings of—early cinema, or what might have been termed pre-queer cinema (before this book came along), is an important intervention that has stakes for the field of media studies; it also has (sometimes) different and overlapping stakes for social justice practices in terms of contemporary film (festival) programming and film production. If one begins to queer silent cinema in terms of its historical production and period aesthetics, and not simply by laying a queer interpretation from a contemporary vantage point onto an earlier cinematic practice, one disrupts and destabilizes the field.
The chapters “Figures in the World: The Geopolitics of the Transcultural Queer” and “A Worldly Affair: Queer Film Festivals and Global Space” launch the reader immediately into a transnational framework. Refreshingly, in Chapter 1 the authors note that issues of subtitling and translation—for years a topic of debate and discussion among film scholars and critics, who tend to believe that foreign language films do not reach the fullest audience possible because of the problems inherent in the translation process—are no longer an issue, but are actually part and parcel of interesting plot twists and turns in films with transnational characters, story lines, and production teams. Cambodian-British filmmaker Hong Khaou’s Lilting (2014) involves the crossing of three national cultures: Chinese, British, and Cambodian as it brings into relief the struggles of communication among newly formed families that do not share a common language and where queerness is not always openly addressed. In the case of Lilting, this is a formal device through which the plot can function, and a structuring aesthetic by which “the queer figures effects can be felt across the cinematic apparatus” (74).
Similarly, the Slovenian film Dvjona (Dual, Nejc Gazvoda, 2013) also disrupts audience expectations of a more conventional Western-style coming out story. Instead, Galt and Schoonover note that Dvjona is a story of travel and translation, with two female protagonists—one Danish and one Slovenian—who encounter each other as a result of flight delays. The physical attraction between the two characters is palpable, and while they do not speak the same language, they nevertheless divulge their stories to each other. It is the audience that can understand these stories (via subtitling), rather than the characters.
Whereas a heteronormative rom-com or family relationship drama might employ a lost-in-translation trope to predictable ends, the authors show that Lilting and Dvjona reject any such universalizing aesthetic or common language of queerness. Instead, they embrace a minoritizing worldview, revealing the ontological distinctions of queerness across cultures that resist homogeneity in favor of specific historical and political narratives. Their analysis points out that such cultures of distinction are not always at odds with a culture of openness.
Chapters 3 and 4: “Speaking Otherwise: Allegory, Narrative, and Queer Public Space” and “The Queer Popular: Genre and Perverse Economies of Scale,” are where Schoonover and Galt’s unique approach to their subject really takes root, and where the authors’ deep engagement with post colonial theory is most evident and productive. The reader is constantly reminded of the global circulations of culture, capital, and cinema.
These theoretical perambulations coalesce in Chapter 5’s discussion of the dramatic stakes for the spectatorial bystander in a film’s narrative, and the political stakes for a film beyond the film’s story world. Through a discussion of critical scenes in Noman Robin’s Bangla-Bollywood hit Common Gender (2012), Galt and Schoonover encourage the reader take a stand. Robin has claimed that he was inspired/driven to make this film after he saw a hijra (transgender woman) being beaten publicly for using a women’s toilet in a shopping mall. One of hundreds of bystanders who witnessed this beating, he chose to do something about it. Though he did not react in the very moment when he witnessed the injustice, he was compelled to take action because of what he had witnessed. Reaching out to the small local hijra community, one that is known for being outspoken, Robin crafted a queer film with queer actors, queer politics, and queer stakes. On this journey through the cruel world that all global citizens inhabit, through the real life and onscreen characters portrayed in Common Gender, Schoonover and Galt remind readers that the emergence of queer cinematic time is as beholden to the immediacy and contingency of the everyday as it is to the ethereal spaces and places of desire.
Traveling with Galt and Schoonover was far and away a most pleasurable guided-tour experience. I hope FQ‘s readers will enjoy this journey too.
Early on, you discuss how the dynamism of the cinematic image allows for a resistance to reification. Was there an aha moment? Or was it something that you sensed all along for which you finally found the words?
I think you’ve pinpointed our interest in cinema’s capacity to resist reifying the world that was, if anything, our impetus for the book. Queer theory has done significant work on world systems and how sexuality and gender must be intrinsic to a critique of contemporary capitalism, and equally film studies has made the concept of “world cinema” a central problematic for the discipline. But we began from a sense that, despite the important work that’s been done in these fields, cinema was often being used merely as an example of trends in global LGBT culture. We felt that the insights of film theory into cinema as an apparatus––of desire, subjectivity, social formation, space and time––had not been fully brought to bear on questions of queerness and the world. Film makes worlds, and the cinema has always been a space that navigates global flows with intimate desires. Our aim in writing this book was to afford to queer filmmaking practices around the world the complex relationships among text, audience, and cultural context that are routinely given to presumptively straight films. The idea that cinema as a medium produces queer worlds was a crucial starting point for us.
Another key moment of discovery came after watching scores of films at film festivals and queer community spaces around the world. It struck us that a traditional mode of cinema-going—strangers and intimates sitting together in the dark watching projected images— remains charged with political potential and a vital semantic plasticity for its audiences. So what otherwise looks like a very old-fashioned apparatus compared to other apparently more modern media forms is still a potent desire-making machine. And by desire we don’t just refer to hookups in the dark (though those are important) but also aspirations that our world be organized in different ways.
You mention a number of workshops and other encounters that really helped to formulate some of what is in this book. Can you share how you reached this point of “worlding” in the process of collaborating on and writing this book?
The book results from a larger research project that spans over a seven-year period, and broadly speaking, the project has included a series of interviews, public events, collaborations with film festivals, several symposia, and research trips that took us around the world. After we had finished the Global Art Cinema book, we wanted to work on another book together and in a spontaneous moment decided to write it in a truly collaborative way. I remember thinking at that moment that a completely cowritten book was something scholars did all the time; about halfway through the process, though, and feeling some sense of accomplishment, we looked at the film books on our bookshelves and realized it was actually an unusual way of working. Sure, people have shared author credit on edited collections or on books where they wrote alternating chapters, but very few had done it totally together.
We were surprised about how curious people were about the nitty-gritty of our collaboration. We were pleased that people were interested but after many probing questions it also felt somewhat invasive—and not so queer. They asked: “Who’s on top?” or “Who’s the girl?” In fact, speaking as two voices about this project [in this interview] feels peculiar. And it has occurred to us that writing together is in a sense quite a queer practice.
Let me put this in another way using an example from a film. At the end of the gay Japanese pink film, I Like You, I Like You Very Much [Hiroyuki Oki, 1994], two men confirm their affections to each other, speaking in unison the title of the film. They cuddle on the grass in public and then look together at other young men jogging by. The visual narration here assigns both desire and identification to their looks. It also transfers that desire/identification to the returned gazes of the passing runners and to [the viewer’s] looks.
Now, the overtly formalized mixing of desire with identification should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with queer visual culture. But what is more fascinating, and I think important, about this scene is how the film makes that mixture a communal, shared look. In other words, the film de-individualizes gay desire, suggesting that same-sex intimacies contain a refusal of dualism. The film, which is largely concerned with men having sex with men, ends with a treatise on queer sexuality––queerness not only has a kind of polyamory at its core but also dissolves conventional subject barriers. The gaze is not simply disaggregated from a single human look, but desire seems to emerge from various vantage points that cannot be reconciled diegetically. The pioneering Chinese lesbian art film Fish and Elephant [Yu Li, 2001] forges a similarly multifocal point of origin for the gaze it narrates, even mixing animal and human POVs.
I mention this queering of identification in relation to our writing of this book, because this scene stakes a claim about the origins of queer expression. In the book, we talk theoretically about how speaking queerly means being in public differently and often in risky ways. And that is what we’ve tried to do even when presenting parts of the project as lectures. We had to confront [the question]: Does queerness ever speak in a single voice? We worked hard to ensure that the book sounds like one coherent voice for the reader throughout, but like the gaze in I Like You, I Like You Very Much, that voice represents neither simply one person speaking nor the two of us in conversation. It is something more hybrid, more deterritorialized, queerer.
I am particularly impressed by the way that you as Western cinema scholars are able to enact your own deterritorializations and get beyond the hetero and homonormative optics that still proliferate in media studies to make these claims.
I am not sure one person can ever fully look past or through those optic regimes, but as film scholars we are committed to the idea that cinema can propose and foster nonnormative ways of looking at the world. Cinema is also a powerful means of accessing other perspectives in time, and many of the films we look at ask their viewers not simply to adopt a different POV as a form of virtual tourism (becoming what Robert Stam and Ella Shohat call “armchair conquistadors”), but implicate their viewers in the world’s difficult dynamics and cue different ways of thinking through them. Also, the book represents our polemic that film scholarship and criticism must engage with queer world cinemas, thinking through new queer films not only as national products but also as making meaning across national boundaries and in various politicized contexts. After all, this is so often how queer films are seen today, whether it be the popular Thai sports film Iron Ladies [Yongyoot Thongkongtoon, 2000] being used by grassroots HIV/AIDS educators in rural Indonesia or the U.S. State Department screening the Guinean gay film Dakan [Destiny, Mohamed Camara, 1997] in U.S. embassies in Africa as part of its neoliberal initiative to bring the Western values of humanism to the continent and the “developing world.”
The idea of changing the framing of “queer cinema” so as to not to privilege Euro-American practices resonated with both of us from the outset for these reasons and it probably also emerges in part from our formations as feminist scholars. We have both been trained to notice how normative optics are patriarchal and that same intellectual foundation prompts us to pay attention to the intersections of gender, sexuality, race, class and geopolitics in the construction of film historiography and histories of film style. Queer cinema can be normalized in various ways: canonical auteurs like Eisenstein and Apichatpong are co-opted for “straight” film history, their queerness minimized; meanwhile queer practices that don’t fit easily into Western narratives of LGBT life or don’t adopt Western film styles do not easily find distribution or critical attention. We made a conscious decision to widen our corpus as far as possible––to watch everything we could find and not to constitute a category of “queer cinema” a priori.
This is because there’s been a tendency to dismiss the politics of popular and middlebrow films, for example, as political compromises. And there are many films in the book that political modernists would not see as radical. These exclusions and dismissals felt far too quick and do not hold up well against the precedent of taking the popular seriously, an initiative so fiercely forged by pioneering queer film historians and theorists. The breadth of our corpus was part of the book’s polemic. Particularly important was not deciding in advance which films are neoconservative and homonormative and which are radical. We take form seriously and this extends to Nollywood dramas, Thai horror films, and Bollywood musicals, not simply films with an overt political formalism.
I really like your idea of cinema as a way to know the world without mastering it. This is a radical stance for academics who, after all, are part of an entire system of granting PhDs that is linked to the notion of “mastery.” In making this claim, and in identifying both of your subject positions within the academy, as well as in your personal lives, you seem to be “outing” yourselves. Can you discuss your political choices and how intellectuals might work within a system to shift the discourse?
You touch here on an issue we talked about a lot, which might be phrased as our responsibility as queer scholars of world cinema. We were very aware of our position as white, cisgendered, middle-class, Western scholars, in certain ways highly privileged, but also [aware] of the many other political and sexual identities that underwrite our thinking. This reflective interrogation of our own positionality is part and parcel of a queer critique. Queer theory unsettles the separation of private and public, and it has led us to think closely about the nature of collaboration and the circulation of power (and pleasure) in the work of research. Conventionally, film scholars do not feel restricted to writing about films from their own culture, nor should they, yet the discipline is hardly immune to colonial structures of thought. Part of the work of decolonizing humanities disciplines is to think critically about the relationship between scholar and object of study.
For us, this meant understanding that we were not on a mission to bring these unknown filmmakers to the world, for they were already known and already remaking the world. We considered it a central part of our political project, however, to engage with and to theorize cinematic worlds beyond those already “mastered” by Western academic film studies. This idea follows from our conception of ‘queer cinema’ as led by the films and the ways that filmmakers, festival programmers, activists, and audiences discussed them, rather than using canonical auteurs or (mostly white, American, male) queer theory to determine our corpus. Our mantra, as we worked to shape our argument, was always to start from the films rather than imposing existing ideas on them. Another thing that intellectuals can do to shift the discourse is to consider who their interlocutors are. Engaging with scholars and critics beyond this self-replicating canon may have instrumental value for underrepresented scholars in changing citation metrics, but more importantly, it changes the terms and the stakes of the conversation.
The book takes on the world, which means the scale of our research was initially quite daunting. Early on, I think some colleagues saw the scope of the project as impractical and even hubristic. We do address films from nearly every continent and spoken in dozens of languages. This scope clearly poses different kinds of challenges to the work we’ve both written individually in the past. We wanted to question neoliberalism’s impulse to claim exclusive ownership of “the world” and colonize all forms of its representation, while at the same time we weren’t convinced that disposing of the world as a category was a sustainable option for the human community.
How to imagine the world (its scale, its transits, its divisions) is a question that film scholars and critics cannot avoid if they want to attend to the aspirations and impact of contemporary films. Contemporary queer films are often in dialogue with each other across continents. Meanwhile … cinema is still understood to be a medium of universal understanding. The film image has more often than not carried a quality of universal comprehension. We believe that the image’s apparently inherent universal accessibility and cosmopolitizing force should be regarded more as facets of cinema’s ideology than as features of its ontology. We’ve both integrated this idea in our own individual writings on world cinema, but it was also crucial for this book to unpack how queer film circuits often restablize the precise regimes that we look to dismantle. Nonetheless, movies remain a site in which many people imagine the relationship between politics and life.
It is interesting how you’ve phrased your observation: “You are “outing” yourselves.” In fact, the book mostly steers clear of a telos of coming out. Contemporary non-Western queer films are far less concerned with the coming out narrative. Who you are in the world (where you stand in relation to globalization) determines not only how out you are and what it means to be out but also the kinds of “outings” you can make for yourself. There seem to be widening divisions between how different humans live. These divisions are often policed in part by how individuals are asked to understand the relation of their daily life to the scale of world. This is true for those living under “austerity” in Germany; it is true for Dalits fighting for basic civil rights in India. Both of these situations are raised by queer films discussed in the book. This process of explaining the world to us is never over. These divisions and boundaries must be drawn and redrawn on a daily basis. Cinema provides a means of intervening in these politics.
In Chapter 3 [narrative and allegory] and Chapter 4 [queer and the popular], I found myself revisiting a great deal of postcolonial theory. I frequently teach one of the films you discuss: The Parade [Srdjan Dragojević, Serbia, 2011]. I have observed that students in my Eastern European cinema class may have normalized queer identity politics, but they have not necessarily reached a similar place with ethnic and racial politics. For both of you, what are the genealogical stakes of the decolonizer and the decolonized, and how do these stakes function at the level of individual bodies and identities in global capitalism? I wonder: are these still intrinsically linked to the body politic?
Queer lives are inevitably linked to histories of colonialism and decolonization, whether through the homophobic laws instituted by the British in India and much of Africa and the Caribbean, or in the ways that LGBT human rights campaigns are often understood as deriving from globalized capitalism and neoimperialism in the Global South. It’s impossible to separate histories of Western LGBT rights activism from other forms of “white savior” behavior, and equally it’s impossible to answer the question of what forms of sexuality and gender identity might exist in the world without the effects of colonialism and global capitalism. Queerness exists throughout the world, and identities, subjectivities, and desires everywhere emerge from a combination of local and globalized cultures.
One of the most important recent developments in queer theory has been the uncovering of the ideological imbrication of mainstream western LGBT rights politics with neoliberalism and transnational racism. Anti-homophobia campaigns serve as a kind of affective ground upon which market logic permeates all forms of life and upon which the “war on terror” has been justified. Young scholars have been energized by this theoretical turn, interested again in what queer theory scholarship can offer to the politics of today.
While visual culture often provides central examples for these anti-imperialist arguments, film studies itself has not directly engaged in these theoretical questions, while nonetheless continuing to pursue questions of global cinema with increasing intensity. Queer Cinema in the World attempts to bring these conversations together because both fields [queer theory and film studies] ask crucial questions of representation that the other seems reluctant to address.
For a project on queer world cinema, the stakes are clear: we can’t conceptualize how cinema constructs queer worlds without taking into account the ways that both queerness and cinema are necessarily implicated in circuits of power, in ways that are often violently racialized and gendered. Often, cinema is a site in which queerness flourishes and in which dissident modes of living gain transnational mobility. It’s a crucial site of resistance, from activist videos to the radical counterpublics created by queer film festivals. But it is also a site of more ambivalent contestations, where homophobia and tolerance become avatars for postcolonial geopolitics. Without analyzing cinema, we can’t understand the way that sexuality and gender are intervening in global politics.
Karl, is this on a continuum with what you identified in Chapter 4 as your earlier work on Italian neorealism or with the role of the “spectatorial bystander” that you identified in your earlier seminal book, Brutal Vision: The Neorealist Body in Postwar Italian Cinema ?
The concerns of that earlier book—how a nation’s films were used to promote an international space for human rights and liberal politics, and laid the groundwork for a neoliberalized world—all resonate with Queer Cinema in the World and the book’s attempt to spotlight how cinema serves as an engine of humanist sympathy and universalism in ways that reinforce the market economy. Brutal Vision was also about how cinema provided an affective ground for the political project of suspending sovereignty for the sake of progress. While there isn’t a direct corollary with contemporary queer politics, we were certainly eager to unpack a logic of neonationalist politics which suggests that LGBT identities are an imperialist import that threaten national sovereignty. There are wonderful films, like the very broad comedy The Parade from Serbia, that we argue demonstrate the capacity of queer cinema to undo the logic of those nationalist homophobic movements.
Rosalind, can you discuss this in terms of the larger role of melodrama in a human rights or social justice framework for cinema? How does this relate to, or diverge from, some of the qualities of the image that you addressed in your earlier work on the pretty? I am particularly interested in how discourses of aesthetics and style are imbricated in politics of gender and sexuality.
One strand that links this book to my previous monograph Pretty: Film and the Decorative Image [Columbia University Press, 2011] is a determination to read film aesthetics as political. I think I bring from that project to this one a commitment to a queer and feminist account of the geopolitics of style. In that book, I argued that decorative style has been denigrated as feminine, effeminate, and non-Western. Queer cinema––aside from a few arthouse directors like Tsai Ming-liang or Xavier Dolan––is often discussed in sociological terms rather than aesthetic ones, with criticism focusing on questions of visibility, authenticity, or the politics of good and bad representations, rather than paying attention to form. In this book, we’ve considered what queerness does to film aesthetics, and how style animates queer worldliness. For example, we consider how censorship and repression leads to glitches and gaps that are picked up by queer filmmakers in disparate locations as deliberate stylistic markers, figuring the inaccessibility of smooth flows of representation and desire. We also consider how melodrama is linked to political activism, where overages of form and affect are deployed as a way to make claims on social justice heard.
I cannot help but draw some parallels now between the saga of Brexit in England, and the nightmarish election cycle in the U.S., and your discussion of Proteus (John Greyson, 2003) in Chapter 6, regarding traditional understandings of revolution and rebirth. Proteus is only one of the films the chapter addresses, as you go on to show just how complicated and “excised”—your word—queerness or queer cinematic practices can be. How have the politics and stakes of queer filmmaking and queer approaches to the study of cinema changed to such an extent that burning the house down is not the only narrative/alternative?
There’s certainly a narrative in which queer cinema/politics used to be radical and has become domesticated and homonormative. Clearly, there’s some truth to this accounting of queer history, and we’ve addressed this shift throughout the book. We consider, for example, the corporatization of queer film festivals, the emergence of mainstream cinematic representations of LGBT people through debased discourses of tolerance and normality, and debates around pinkwashing and the use of queer culture to provide an alibi for state violence, racism, and genocide. There is more than enough evidence for the proposition that queers still need to burn down the house.
And yet, that particular narrative of queer politics is primarily a U.S. one and does not necessarily speak for how queers in other regions of the world might experience the relationship between culture and activism, or between local queer lifeworlds and the pressures of the global. There’s a danger of installing a temporality in which the world beyond the West belatedly “gets” queer identities or activist impulses; we’ve worked against this perspective throughout the book. We discuss a highly disparate range of queer cinematic practices, from abstract experimental films to low-budget heist movies, so the political is not always directly at stake. Nonetheless, if the house is our world, queer cinema is always engaged in the necessity of remaking it.
We had a crazy paranoid fantasy [while writing] that the problems of the world would be solved by the time the book was in print and that the problems plaguing people leading their lives queerly would have begun—in some utopian future—to feel like anecdotes drawn from an unimportant past. If only! The politics we discuss feel urgent with the continued rise of religious fundamentalisms, populist politics, Islamophobia, and continued violence against trans people. Have queer lives become any less precarious than when we started writing? And how would that even be measured? The answers to those questions remain fraught. There is still a need to examine what it means to be in the world and to consider the positionality of those posing such questions.
1. The phrase “gleaming the cube” comes from surf and skate punk counterculture, and became the eponymous title of a Hollywood film, directed by Graemme Clifford, and starring Christian Slater. Released in 1989, this film brought an outsider phrase into the mainstream vernacular.