Exploring cinema through a bigger lens

Talitha Espiritu, assistant professor of English and coordinator of Wheaton’s journalism studies minorTalitha Espiritu, assistant professor of English and coordinator of Wheaton’s journalism studies minor, teaches “Introduction to Film Studies,” “World Cinema” and “Third Cinema.” A former journalist in her native Philippines, she has a Ph.D. in cinema studies from New York University. Her research focus is on global popular culture, identity and representation, which gives her exploration of film studies a personal as well as global scope.

What do you find most interesting about cinema studies?

Cinema studies grapples with how and why films “matter” in our world—that’s what I find to be most compelling about the discipline. As the most popular storytelling medium of our time, film is our window to the world. It has been a principal means of imagining the world and our place in it. In that respect, it has been a window to our own identities. This is something I teach my students all the time. Who are you? What identity are you constructing for yourself? We don’t usually examine it, but the movies have produced the myths and symbols that we use daily to define ourselves and others. And now, that shared visual culture includes new media and the Internet. So when I think of the cinema, I don’t think of it as a discrete entity, an exhibited object, or a leisure activity; I think of it as this networked world of images in which we live.

Has the approach to cinema studies changed over the years? 

The traditional model in cinema studies has been to study film as a distinctive art form. Over the last 50 years, the discipline has evolved in many directions, incorporating insights from linguistics, anthropology, psychoanalysis, cultural studies and more recently, globalization studies. We now talk about film as a language, a social practice and a global-cultural commodity. Given the breadth of these approaches, I feel it would be anachronistic to teach students in the traditional cinema studies way, where we’re only talking about film directors, cinematography or the narrative. That’s not really giving them the wider context, the real-world context, to allow them to see film as part of a broader culture. Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s very, very important for students to know how to “read” a film and appreciate the art in it, but they also need to know that their reading of a film doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it’s part of a symbolic economy. We live in this age of globalization. The United States’ biggest export is popular filmed media—such exports have overtaken exports in the agricultural, automotive and even aerospace industries. If it’s such a big part of the political economy of globalization, shouldn’t we think about it critically? I ask my students: Is it dangerous when you have a very small number of huge media conglomerates basically owning and controlling all our electronic images? How do those images create meaning, and what do audiences actually “do” with them? Do these images dictate who we think we are, or how other people view us? Is there a way to resist these images?

How do these ideas relate to your current research?

My general research focus is on “third cinema,” which I’m teaching a course on this fall. Basically, it’s looking at cinema and media studies from the perspective of the Third World and from Third World realities. I’m interested in this because the discipline still does not have the language to express the lived realities of people in those parts of the world that have struggled with colonialism, neocolonialism, and now globalization. “Third cinema” has been an umbrella term for militant cinema movements that emerged in Latin America, Africa and Asia in support of anticolonial movements from the late 1950s to the 1970s. The Vietnamese victory over the French, the Cuban revolution and the Algerian war of independence were the historical signposts. These anticolonial films took diverse forms—militant documentaries produced clandestinely with the direct assistance of revolutionary organizations in Argentina, for example, or popular melodramas with allegorical messages of resistance in the case of the Philippines, my country of origin. My research explores the ways in which these anticolonial films have influenced contemporary alternative media. The case of Afro-Reggae in Brazil is a good example. You have a group of young musicians in the favelas of Rio using the documentary form to spread a message of hope to other disenfranchised communities of the African diaspora. So basically, I’m interested in how older notions of “underground” or “guerrilla” cinemas have provided models for cultural activism in the global era. The basic question is: How might films be used for community empowerment?

What is the biggest lesson that you hope students learn in your film courses?

I hope that my students learn that we live in a world of images, but these are not “just” images; they have symbolic and material effects in the world. How films create meaning, how they represent social identities, how they circulate across cultural difference, how they empower some and disenfranchise others, how they can break down cultural barriers and also deepen social inequalities—all these issues make cinema so much more than a cultural pastime. It’s the medium of globalization.