Cinema and Media Studies Immigration and Cinema
by
Alex Lykidis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0230

Introduction

Films have appealed to immigrants since the early days of the medium, providing a visual and kinetic form of entertainment that transcended language barriers and captured the dynamism of modern city life. Indeed, the style of many early American films was modeled on the fairground attractions and vaudeville acts popular with working-class and immigrant audiences. While it may seem evident that immigrant experience shaped early American film culture, the manner and scope of its influence has been hotly debated in film studies since the late 1970s. The economic and political crises that marked much of the 20th century created new waves of immigration, especially in the interwar period, that in some cases infused new talent and ideas into established film industries and in others created entirely new film movements. Many film scholars have studied the work of émigré directors in Hollywood and elsewhere, with increasingly sophisticated attempts being made to interpret the style and content of their films in relation to their creators’ industrial marginality and cultural alienation. In the 1990s, film scholars sought to distinguish immigrant films from dominant modes of production, genres, and styles, developing a new critical vocabulary to explain how the exilic, nostalgic, and alienating aspects of immigrant experience could be expressed cinematically. Recent scholarship has begun to address the aesthetic hybridity of immigrant filmmaking, tracking its oscillations between realism and stylization, individualism and communalism, essentialism and performativity, and “high” and “low” cultural forms. Many scholars today are also looking at how gender and sexuality complicate cinematic portrayals of immigrant identity. The study of immigration and cinema intersects with that of transnational and diasporic cinemas (see the article “Transnational and Diasporic Cinema”), the former focusing more on representational strategies and less on modes of production than the latter. In this article, a distinction is made between the work of “émigré filmmakers” who travel abroad but might not explicitly address immigration in their films, “immigrant filmmakers” whose work engages with immigrant issues in some way, and “films about immigration” that deal explicitly with immigration but might not be directed by an immigrant filmmaker. These distinctions reveal the competing investments in immigrant identity, the disarticulation of which is an essential task for scholars seeking to better understand the ethical and ideological implications of immigrant representation.

General Overviews

The study of immigration and cinema intersects with various disciplines, including anthropology, epistemology, gender studies, postcolonial studies, and cultural studies. Marks 2000 and Naficy 2001 laid the theoretical foundations for an interdisciplinary understanding of immigrant cinema, with a special emphasis on the output of diasporic filmmakers in the West. The dialectical engagement with dominant Western cinemas and their global alternatives in Shohat and Stam 1994 influenced later studies of immigrant filmmakers situated at the margins of national and commercial film industries. These early monographs spawned a series of anthologies, such as Naficy 1999, Rueschmann 2003, Shohat and Stam 2003, and Grossman and O’Brien 2007, which address the modes of production, representational strategies, and aesthetic characteristics of immigrant cinema. The global proliferation of films by and about immigrants is chronicled in regional and thematic overviews of immigrant filmmaking in Ness 2013.

  • Grossman, Alan, and Áine O’Brien, eds. Projecting Migration: Transcultural Documentary Practice. London: Wallflower, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    Considers the use of documentary images by activists and scholars in a variety of disciplines to create “living archives” that complicate and deepen our understanding of immigration. The authors analyze how documentary filmmakers use reflexivity, performativity, and provocation to challenge xenophobic and ethnocentric discourses about immigrants.

  • Marks, Laura. The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.

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    Analyzes how film techniques may be used to express nonaudiovisual sensory experience, arguing that intercultural films employ auratic, synesthetic, and haptic visuality to retrieve memories and truths that can be elusive in diasporic communities. Marks relates intercultural films to imperfect cinema and reflexive documentaries and highlights the challenges of their production, distribution, and exhibition contexts.

  • Naficy, Hamid. An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.

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    The most influential book in the study of immigration and cinema, it introduced or elaborated on many of the topics central to this area of scholarship, including exilic perspectives, nostalgia for home, the narrative centrality of journeys and border crossings, interstitial filmmaking practices, and the “accented style” adopted by many immigrant filmmakers.

  • Naficy, Hamid, ed. Home, Exile, Homeland: Film, Media and the Politics of Place. London: Routledge, 1999.

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    Covers the bodily and sensual, discursive and industrial dimensions of exilic filmmaking and its representation of borders, mobility, and homelands. The authors situate exilic films within national, transnational, and postcolonial frames of reference. Naficy’s introduction provides sociohistorical and industrial context for the essays in the collection, situating them in relation to past scholarship on immigration and cinema.

  • Ness, Immanuel, ed. The Encyclopedia of Global Human Migration. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444351071E-mail Citation »

    Contains fourteen entries on film and migration written by noted film scholars such as Daniela Berghahn, Giorgio Bertellini, and Sheila Petty. In addition to regional overviews, the volume includes essays on specific topics such as trauma, history, and memory.

  • Rueschmann, Eva, ed. Moving Pictures, Migrating Identities. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2003.

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    Essays in this collection pay special attention to cross-generational and gender dynamics, migratory journeys, and the ethics of representation in relation to postcolonial, globalization, and border discourses. Rueschmann’s introduction provides a useful overview of film scholarship about diasporic and migrant cinema. Significant attention is paid to frequently overlooked documentary films about immigration.

  • Shohat, Ella, and Robert Stam. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media. London: Routledge, 1994.

    E-mail Citation »

    This foundational text of multicultural film studies provides an introduction to the Eurocentric and colonialist ideological characteristics of dominant cinema and the reflexive, syncretic, allegorical, and carnivalesque aesthetics adopted by oppositional film movements around the world.

  • Shohat, Ella, and Robert Stam, eds. Multiculturalism, Postcolonialism, and Transnational Media. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    Essays on the border politics in Lone Star, immigrant identity in Mississippi Masala, engagements with French immigration discourse in Maghrebi-French cinema, and the first-person narrational strategies of black diasporic cinema will be of particular interest to scholars of immigration and cinema. Shohat and Stam’s introduction outlines the divergent interpretations of multiculturalism, nationalism, and postcolonialism in media studies.

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