Peer Reviewed

Exclusive to M/m Print Plus

Global South Cinephilias

What, Where, and When is Cinephilia?

Though the term cinephilia simply means “love of cinema,” historically it has been used to mark a love of cinema with a difference. Whether it is understood broadly or in its most limited, conventional sense—as an impassioned, discriminating fervor for film that takes its cues from the film societies and cinémathèques of interwar and postwar France—cinephilia typically sets itself apart from “ordinary” film fans’ intense attachment to stars, genres, and visual spectacle, however generative or subversive these attachments might be.[1] Instead, cinephiles pursue more rarefied and elusive forms of filmic pleasure. Cinephilia is inextricably linked with cinematic modernism: initially, the avant-gardes of the 1920s, and later the subjective and self-reflexive art cinemas of the postwar period, as well as the political modernisms of the long sixties and beyond that sought to harness formal experimentation in the service of radical social change. Through a series of case studies drawn from these historical high points of cinephilia, this cluster poses the question: what forms of cinematic modernism and modernity come into view if we expand cinephilia’s purview beyond the Euro-American contexts where it is traditionally understood to have flourished? The eight contributions to this cluster explore cinephilia in the Global South, a term roughly equivalent to the sometimes pejorative (and arguably outdated, in a post-Cold War order) expression “Third World.” Encompassing not only “economically disadvantaged nation-states” but also “spaces and peoples negatively impacted by capitalist globalization,” the notion of the Global South takes into account the persistent legacies of formal empire, internal colonialism (including racialized oppression), and neocolonial dependence and underdevelopment.[2]

Prevailing notions of cinephilia have not only been marked by a narrow geographic scope of inquiry, but are also shot through with the elitism that (perhaps inevitably) characterizes this privileged form of love for the cinema. Defined by the imperative to train and discipline audiences as a precondition for “improving” the aesthetic quality of film production, cinephilia has historically reinforced interconnected hierarchies of class and taste. Bucking the commercial mainstream in their efforts to canonize neglected films as historically or aesthetically significant and to institute specific protocols for engaging with the moving image—such as viewing films collectively in alternative spaces like film societies, cinémathèques, and arthouse theaters and reflecting on movies through verbal debate and written criticism informed by extensive historical and theoretical study—self-identified cinephiles have long placed themselves on the defensive. Sarah Keller has recently argued that the defining emotion of cinephilia is anxiety, whether provoked by the elusiveness of individual film titles; the emergence of new technologies that threaten to alter the very essence of the medium; or concerns about the decline of passionate yet sophisticated modes of engaging with the moving image.[3] This latter sentiment is epitomized by Susan Sontag’s infamous 1996 polemic “The Decay of Cinema,” the rise of formulaic spectacle-driven blockbusters and the preference for domestic viewing on small screens deprived moviegoing of its transcendent and ritualistic dimensions, obliterating the rapturous and contemplative cinephilia inspired by the art cinema of the 1960s and 1970s.[4]

If the love of cinema has long been haunted by the specter of loss, what Girish Shambu has influentially called the “new cinephilia”—that is, a cinephilia enabled by the digital—is instead characterized by overabundance, from the profusion of films available via online streaming and home video formats like DVD and Blu-Ray to the explosion of amateur film criticism on blogs and social media.[5] Yet this vision of a high-fidelity, highly networked cinephilia does not accurately reflect a global media landscape characterized by a profound digital divide; access to the high-speed broadband internet needed to stream films is unevenly distributed across the globe. Instead, in much of the Global South the circulation of moving-image content is reliant on what Joshua Neves and Bhaskar Sarkar call an “extranet”: informal infrastructures constituted by the physical exchange of digital technologies like the VCDs (video compact discs) that comprise the main channel of film distribution in Nigeria and Ghana, microSD cards viewed in mobile phones, and the hard drives used to disseminate el paquete semanal (a weekly installment of pirated films and television programs along with original programming created expressly for this distribution channel) across Cuba.[6] Furthermore, physical exhibition spaces for alternative and repertory programming retain immense symbolic and social importance in metropolises from Mexico City and Manila.[7] These vibrant but often precarious networks and spaces have more in common with the improvised methods for circulating films outside commercial channels used in the interwar and postwar periods (for instance, concealing them in a sympathetic traveler’s luggage or sending them via the diplomatic pouch many archives used to avoid import duties) than the architecture of present-day media conglomerates’ streaming services with their logic of “anytime, anywhere” viewing.

Although the networked, virtual experience of cinephilia hailed by many Euro-American commentators is far from universal, the expansion of social networks and online communities have nevertheless brought a truly global dimension to cinephilic modes of thinking, talking, and writing about film.[8] Energized by these developments, Shambu calls for a mode of engagement with cinema that is not only omnivorous in its tastes and global in its reference points, but also deeply committed to social transformation.[9] In so doing, he rhetorically opposes the “new cinephilia” to our entrenched understanding of the “old cinephilia” as Eurocentric, exclusionary, and dedicated to art for art’s sake. Sontag’s essay, Shambu argues, errs in “fixing a single notion of cinephilia as universal. Instead, it is far more likely that the globe has seen multiple and geographically dispersed cinephilias since the invention of cinema, and what’s more, those cinephilias have not stood still for a hundred years but have been constantly mutating and transforming over time, each in its distinct fashion” (Shambu, The New Cinephilia, 53).

The fact that Shambu speaks of these global cinephilias in hypothetical terms suggests how little we know about how cinephilic modes of engagement with the moving image have functioned outside North Atlantic countries. This neglect is especially striking given the “old” cinephilia’s constitutive relationship to a past viewed nostalgically. Whereas the new cinephilia is defined by plenitude (the fantasy of the total on-demand availability of our cinematic history and present) and simultaneity (the dream of frictionless, near-instantaneous communication with like-minded viewers on a planetary scale), the old cinephilia, Thomas Elsaesser argues, is fundamentally out of phase with the present.[10] Citing the well-known case of the backlog of Hollywood films that flowed into France after World War II, shaping the concepts of film noir and director as auteur by facilitating the recognition of repeated formal choices and themes across films, Elsaesser posits that cinephilia “is always already caught in several kinds of deferral: a detour in space and place, a shift in register and a delay in time” (Elsaesser, “Cinephilia,” 30). If cinephilia is generated at the site of belated reception, the product of a circuitous global circulation, its logic resonates with perhaps the most problematic and pervasive set of perceptions applied to the Global South: the notion that modernity arrived there late and from elsewhere. After all, cinema emerged more or less simultaneously in three colonial powers—the United States, France, and Germany—and its global spread was inextricably intertwined with imperialist endeavors.[11]

If Global South modernities have long been viewed as belated, incomplete, or deficient, and its modernisms both celebrated and dismissed as “alternative,” how do we make sense of its cinephilias as discourses and practices that sought both to exalt and domesticate (through intellectual mastery) a medium inextricable from colonial histories and neocolonial dynamics? One first step is to unsettle established historical timelines of cinephilia, not in an effort to definitively identify a new origin, but rather to suggest the multiplicity of its manifestations. For instance, while French filmmaker and theorist Louis Delluc’s use of the term “cine-club” in 1920, first in the title of Le journal du ciné-club and then in reference to a gathering of film enthusiasts, is heralded as a foundational moment for cinephilia, Delluc was not the first to use the term. As early as 1909, a commercial movie theater in Mexico City specializing in French films d’art (adaptations of serious literary and theatrical works) dubbed itself the Cinematógrafo Cine-Club.[12] Notably, French notions of good taste also guided the Cinematógrafo Cine Club’s programming. Yet this precedent requires that we consider Delluc’s use of the term ciné-club to be simply one conjugation of the term cinema with a marker of exclusivity and social distinction (implicit in the term club). As this example suggests, we must attune ourselves to the interplay between cosmopolitan and localized forces in the history of global cinephilias.

The cluster’s opening two case studies exemplify these opposing yet intertwined influences on cinephilic discourses and practices. Ainamar Clariana-Rodagut traces the participation of two exceptional women, Lola Álvarez Bravo and Victoria Ocampo, in a first wave of film societies that took root not only in Europe and the United States (as existing accounts note), but also in Asia and Latin America, during the 1920s and 1930s.[13] Leveraging extensive personal networks developed through their careers as a socially committed photographer and a writer, editor, translator, and patron, respectively, Álvarez Bravo and Ocampo brought celebrated works of European modernist cinema to Mexico and Argentina. Clariana-Rodagut demonstrates how using tools from the digital humanities render these women’s work as cultural mediators visible while registering their explicitly cosmopolitan visions of alternative film culture.

By contrast, as Enoch Yee-lok Tam and Ella Mei-ting Li show, the principal point of reference for the pioneering Hong Kong film magazine Yinguang/銀光 (1926–1927)—an initiative of the city’s first cineclub, the Film as Art Union/電影文藝互進社—was not the European avant-gardes or Hollywood, but rather Shanghai’s burgeoning film industry. The literary figures who ran Yinguang clashed with their counterparts at their Shanghai-based rival Yinxing (銀星), criticizing the latter publication’s close ties to the industry and its championing of women’s growing public visibility as film stars. In contrast with the avowed feminism of Ocampo and Álvarez Bravo, Yinguang’s cinephile contributors took a seemingly anti-feminist position, condemning Shanghai actresses as morally suspect. Yet rather than simply reflecting conventional values, Tam and Li argue, Yinguang’s objections to female screen celebrity are rooted in a theory of film that posits actors’ onscreen performance as a direct reflection of offscreen “personality” with the potential to impact the physical and moral health of the mass audience. This understanding of cinema secularized a set of Christian beliefs associated in the Hong Kong context with both European colonialism and cultural modernity.Whereas Yinxing, influenced by the May Fourth movement, advocated for heroic, nationalistic films that would stir audiences to confront the challenges of modernization and fend off threats to Chinese sovereignty, Yinguang championed an alternate model of modern cinema in a context of “collaborative colonialism.”[14]

Shifting focus from exuberant but often short-lived attempts to foster cinephilia in the 1920s and 1930s to the postwar period, when film societies took root on a broad scale not only in Europe and the United States but also Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Oceania, a pair of essays by Irene Rozsa and Mariana Amieva speak to the challenges and opportunities of establishing enduring institutions of film culture. Tracing the genesis of Cuba’s earliest film archive, the Filmoteca Universitaria at the Universidad de la Habana, in 1949, Rozsa highlights how cinema was enlisted to advance the university’s standing as an engine of economic modernization and cultural modernity. Furnishing prints for José Manuel Valdés Rodríguez’s class “El cine, arte e industria de nuestro tiempo” (Cinema, art and industry of our times)—which he proclaimed to be the first academic course on film in a Latin American university—a public screening series, and a range of other pedagogical activities, the archive became a repository for distinct and even competing national cinemas and filmic modernisms, from Soviet montage to French experimental documentaries like Alain Resnais’s Van Gogh (1948). Amieva’s study of two of Latin America’s largest cineclubs—rival organizations located in Montevideo, Uruguay—similarly highlights the heterogeneity of their programming. She notes that this diversity can be traced not only to the varied sources of the film prints they screened, but also to the tensions between the erudite aesthetic criteria of the clubs’ leadership and their members’ tastes, which included recent releases, star vehicles, and documentaries. If these crowd-pleasing works embodied (in Miriam Hansen’s formulation) a vernacular modernism that resonated with the contours of sensuous experience under industrial modernity, their juxtaposition with a wide range of art films, experimental works, and educational cinema functioned, as Amieva argues following Malte Hagener, as a form of “external montage” that operated via contrast and the logic of the fragment.

As Emilie Sin-yi Choi’s essay on Hong Kong film culture in the 1960s makes clear, the infrastructures that sustained cinephilic modes of viewing were far from politically neutral. Choi examines the vibrant culture of cineclub screenings, film criticism, and experimental filmmaking that grew out of a film column published in The Chinese Student Weekly/中国学生周报, a right-leaning publication that received funding from the CIA-backed Asia Foundation. Working to disseminate Western models of art cinema alongside an anti-Communist model of Chinese nationalism, the intellectuals linked to the Chinese Student Weekly and its sister publication College Life Monthly (大學生活) reshaped Hong Kong’s moving-image culture in unpredictable ways, particularly after the 1967 riots sparked by opposition to British colonial rule refocused their attention on local concerns. Rather than simply reproduce Western modernisms in opposition to socialist realism or agit-prop, these cinephiles moved between avant-garde experiments and the local film industry, blurring sharp ideological divides between studios in the process.

Rachel Gabara’s and Rochona Majumdar’s contributions to the cluster turn to more overtly (rather than covertly) political uses of cinephilia in the turbulent sixties and seventies. Gabara delves into a current of modernist experimentation in Francophone African film of the post-Independence period whose existence has long been ignored by historians. This tendency was cultivated by young cinéastes, some of whom received informal instruction in film history and aesthetics through the cineclub circuit. Édouard Sailly exploded the products of an ethnographic gaze trained on Africans by Euro-American filmmakers into disorienting fragments; Pierre Marie-Dong linked the institution of slavery to current events through chaotic montage; and Simon Augé and Djibril Diop Mambéty used fictional interludes and irreverent voiceover to critique both the colonial past and post-colonial narratives of progress, respectively embodied by historic buildings and new developments in the capital cities of Senegal and Gabon. While these filmmakers’ rebuke to European and American images of African “primitivism” was unmistakable, the reception of Mrinal Sen’s film Calcutta 71, Majumdar argues, was marked by a fundamental misrecognition, a product of the misalignment between the interpretational frameworks of the highly politicized Indian cineclub scene of the early seventies and Sen’s efforts to depict a historic impasse that could not be resolved via partisan politics. Evoking 1971 as an inflection point marked both by the Maoist-inspired agitation of the Naxalites and incidents of state-sponsored terror while refusing to hold any one group of social actors responsible for oppressive conditions, Calcutta 71 links India’s historical circumstances to violent struggle elsewhere in the Global South while refusing the more didactic elements of New Latin American Cinema championed by India’s leftist cinephiles. Through her analyses of film society debates around Calcutta 71, Majumdar analyzes cinephilia as formative of the category “Global South” (then known as the “Third World”).

Finally, Samhita Sunya and Suja Sawafta examine the reverberations of cinephilia in twenty-first century Arabic literature through a case study of Samuel Shimon’s autobiographical novel An Iraqi in Paris (2005), whose title echoes Vincente Minnelli’s 1951 musical An American in Paris. In a narrative that unfolds through a series of unresolved fragments, cinephilia becomes a means of survival, both literally and figuratively. When the protagonist Shmuel is caught up in the chaos of Lebanon’s civil war, he convinces a would-be executioner he is only seeking safe passage to the United States by demonstrating his encyclopedic knowledge of US stars. Throughout his time as in exile in France, Shmuel holds fast to his dream of becoming a Hollywood director, an unrealistic ambition on par with the credulity-stretching plots of the US westerns and Hindi-language films that are woven into his recollections. The device of an unproduced screenplay embedded in the novel at once registers the desire to bridge the gap between literature and cinema and the near-impossibility of doing so in the precarious conditions of exile. Here, cinephilia indexes the displacement not of the filmic object, but rather of the viewing subject.

As these case studies show, forms of the love of cinema cultivated in the Global South, while long marginalized by dominant notions of cinephilia, cannot be understood simply as oppositional, alternative, or resistant to their hegemony. Some institutions of film culture were unabashedly elitist and cosmopolitan, and others progressive and nationalist. Cinephiles might disregard so-called centers of film production altogether in favor of more local reference points, or imagine themselves as linked to their counterparts elsewhere in the Global South through a shared investment in radical politics. If the new cinephilia holds out the promise of a global, networked, and socially committed love of film, the case studies presented in this cluster make clear that the old cinephilia was far more complex and far-ranging than we ever imagined.


[1] See Christophe Gauthier, La passion du cinéma: Cinéphiles, ciné-clubs et salles specialisées à Paris de 1920 à 1929 (Paris: Association Française de Recherche sur l’Histoire du Cinéma, 1999); Antoine de Baecque, La cinéphilie: Invention d’un regard, histoire d’une culture 1944–1968 (Paris: LibraIrie Arthème Fayard, 2003); and Christian Keathley, Cinephilia and History, or the Wind in the Trees (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005).

[2] Anne Garland Mahler, From the Tricontinental to the Global South: Race, Radicalism, and Transnational Solidarity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), 6.

[3] Sarah Keller, Anxious Cinephilia: Pleasure and Peril at the Movies (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020).

[4] Susan Sontag, “The Decay of Cinema,” New York Times, February 25, 1996, section 6, 60.

[5] Girish Shambu, The New Cinephilia, 2nd ed. (Montreal: Caboose Books, 2020). Shambu did not coin the phrase, but his meditation on it has proved influential. See also Thomas Elsaesser’s distinction between “cinephilia take one” and “cinephilia take two” (“Cinephilia, or the Uses of Disenchantment” in Cinephilia: Movies, Love, and Memory, ed. Marijke de Valck and Malte Hagener, 27–43 [Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005]). For other accounts of how particular technological affordances shape attachments to the moving image, see Charles Shiro Tashiro, “Videophilia: What Happens When You Wait for It on Video,” Film Quarterly 45, no. 1 (1991): 7–17; Francesco Casetti and Mariagrazia Fanchi, “Cinephilia/Telephilia,” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 45, no. 2 (2004): 38–41. See also Scott Balcerzak and Jason Sperb, eds., Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction: Film, Pleasure, and Digital Culture, vols. 1 and 2 (London/New York: Wallflower, 2009, 2012); Film Criticism in the Digital Age, ed. Mattias Frey and Cecilia Sayad (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015); Cineaste on Film Criticism, Programming, and Preservation in the New Millennium, ed. Cynthia Lucia and Rahul Hamid (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2017).

[6] Joshua Neves and Bhaskar Sarkar, “Introduction” in Asian Video Cultures: In the Penumbra of the Global, ed. Joshua Neves and Bhaskar Sarkar (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 1–32, 8. On the paquete semanal, see, for instance, Michelle Leigh Farell, “Piracy, Access, and Production in Cuba’s Media Distribution Platform El paquete semanal: The Case of MiHabanaTV,” A Contracorriente 16, no. 3 (2019): 403–426. For an overview of these infrastructures, see Ramon Lobato, Shadow Economies of Cinema: Mapping Information Film Distribution (London: Palgrave Macmillan, British Film Institute, 2012).

[7] On alternative exhibition spaces in twenty-first century Manila, see Jasmine Nadua Trice, City of Screens: Imagining Audiences in Manila’s Alternative Film Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021). Trice does note that the ubiquity of mobile phones and streaming video beginning in the early 2010s led to a shift in viewing practices. On the revamping of cinémathèques as architecturally ambitious spaces for film exhibition in Latin America, see Juana Suárez, “New Buildings, New Pathways: Toward Dynamic Archives in Latin America and the Caribbean,” The Moving Image 21, no. 1–2 (2021): 26–54.

[8] Melis Behlil, “Ravenous Cinephiles: Cinephilia, Internet, and Online Communities” in Cinephilia: Movies, Love, and Memory, 111–23.

[9] Girish Shambu, “For a New Cinephilia,” Film Quarterly 72, no. 3 (2019): 32–34.

[10] On the misleading nature of this fantasy, see Chuck Tryon, On-Demand Culture: Digital Delivery and the Future of Movies (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013).

[11] Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (New York: Routledge, 1994), 100.

[12] Gabriel Rodríguez Álvarez, “Contemporáneos y Cineclub Mexicano: Revistas y cineclubes, la experiencia mexicana,” undergraduate thesis, Ciencias de la Comunicación, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2002, 41–50; Rafael Bermúdez Zatarain, “Lo que fue el Cine Club en su tiempo,” Rotográfico, September 7, 1927, reprinted in Los exaltados: antología de escritos sobre cine en periódicos y revistas de la Ciudad de México, 1896–1929, ed. Ángel Miquel (Guadalajara: Universidad de Guadalajara, 1992), 154–57.

[13] Malte Hagener, Moving Forward, Looking Back. The European Avant-garde and the Invention of Film Culture, 1919–1939 (Amsterdam University Press, 2007), 78.

[14] See Wing Sang Law, Collaborative Colonial Power: The Making of the Hong Kong Chinese (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).