Citizens of Plural Worlds, SCMS Conference Panel
10 - 13 March 2011
Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans, USA
The panel 'Citizens of Plural Worlds: Family and Nation in the Age of Globalisation', examines the representation of the family both as a social institution and as a trope of the nation-state and post-national belonging. The four papers focus on families in Bombay cinema (during the 1950s and post-1990), contemporary European film and Asian-British reality television. The transnational comparison of the institution of the family suggests that kinship is an issue of universal significance but that the structures (nuclear, multi-generational, incomplete and surrogate families based on voluntary affiliations, etc.) and the value systems that underpin family life are always culturally specific. Equally universal is the use of familial tropes (fatherland, Mother India, etc.) to naturalise hierarchical structures of power and subordination, be it within the context of nation states, under colonial rule and during decolonisation and globalisation. The trope of the family is deployed as a highly dynamic discursive device to comment upon our rapidly shifting understanding of citizenship in the age of heightened transnational migration and globalisation.
In the essay ‘It's a family affair: Black culture and the trope of kinship’ (1994), Paul Gilroy contends that the family functions no longer as a microcosm of the nation but has come to stand for many different types of community and solidarity. This shift in the discursive construction of the family – as a model of ambivalent belonging -- corresponds with the changing conceptualisation of citizenship. Post-national and transnational forms of citizenship, such as the notion of ‘race as family’ and the ‘Nation of Islam’ (Gilroy 1994), compete with the old allegiances of national citizenship.
Family narratives in contemporary film and television generally attest to the crisis of the institution of the family, while those about diasporic families suggest that this particular type of family is under even greater pressure. Displacement and dispersal, the rupture of cultural and familial ties, racism and the struggle to negotiate the multi-layered politics of belonging are shown to lead to a destabilization of familial and individual identities. Yet this process also opens up the possibility to forge new alliances that transcend descent and tradition and result in hybrid identities and a citizenship of plural worlds.
The conference panel, which will be chaired by Dr Daniela Berghahn at the annual conference of the Society of Cinema and Media Studies in New Orleans (10 - 13 March 2011) consists of the following four papers:
At Home in the World: Imagining the National Family in Bombay Cinema of the 1950s and the 1990s (Dr Manishita Dass, Royal Holloway, University of London)
Much has been written about the privileging of the affluent diasporic family, marked as Hindu and upper-caste, in popular Hindi films (e.g., Kabhie Khushi Kabhie Gham) of the 1990s and beyond. Scholars have tied this to the growing importance of diasporic audiences, to the insidious influence of Hindu right-wing politics, and to the socio-cultural anxieties generated by India’s economic liberalization – in short, to changing configurations of Indian cultural citizenship in a globalizing world. My paper juxtaposes the present moment with another pivotal episode in Bombay cinema’s long history of mobilizing the trope of the family to produce trans/national fantasies of belonging: its narration of the new nation through a remaking of the cinematic family in the 1950s, India’s first decade of independence. While recent films have recast the diasporic subject as the authentic Indian who carries “India in the heart” and is firmly anchored in “Indian tradition” through the affective ties of family, conservative social codes and elaborate Hindu rituals, the paradigmatic hero of the 1950s was an impoverished orphan or outsider adrift in a disorienting metropolis, relying more on the kindness of strangers than on the support of kinfolk or the comfort of tradition as he attempted to fabricate a self and a life in a transitional society. Moreover, though almost all these heroes were nominally Hindu, their identities were defined by ethical dilemmas revolving around individual and social responsibility rather than by religion, rituals, or lineage. The lone hero, however, soon acquired a de facto family made up of loyal friends, mostly other liminal figures like him. This fabricated family was based on elective affinities and a largely secular ethos rather than on ties of blood or a narrowly defined notion of community, and thus came to symbolize a utopian national family created by the coming together of strangers from diverse ethnic, religious, and social backgrounds. By juxtaposing the privileged family fictions of the 1950s and the 1990s, this paper aims to unsettle easy equations of globalization with progress and calls for a political history of changing representations of the family in Bombay cinema, a history that will connect representational shifts to shifting discourses of cultural citizenship and to changes in the Bombay film industry, and will defamiliarize contemporary fictions of the family, thereby loosening their hold on our imagination of Indianness.
Characterising Family Culture: Inside the Asian Family Space with Channel 4’s The Grewals (Dr Sarita Malik, Brunel University)
This paper examines the degree to which reality television can be said to represent the reproduction of democracy through its media platforming of ordinary, diverse citizens. It discusses Channel 4’s production The Grewals, broadcast in Britain in 2009. The ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary traces the trials and tribulations of the extended British-Indian family as they experience everyday life and family milestones including a wedding and birth. The reality series has been acclaimed as a, “seminal moment in the diversity history of Asian representation and in general of ethnic minority representation”. The series’ combination of particularity (the specific situation of a Jat-Sikh, British, Indian family) and universality (the main themes being centred on love, marriage, and family relationships) have also been praised by journalists and audiences.
This paper aims to explore how we can account for the success of The Grewals. The family has been a particular source of fascination for reality television producers and audiences. It has also been one of the defining tropes through which the Asian community has been understood and represented in media discourse. Ideas of the Asian family as close-knit, extended, and bound by tradition and patriarchal frameworks have all been key features of this discourse. It is here that representations of ‘Asianness’ have often proliferated around a set of standardised, ethnicised and often negative notions of ‘authentic Asian culture’. When such representations occur in a media genre based around the illusion of ‘truth’, questions of authenticity and authorship become even more complicated.
This paper considers how, in spite of the widespread critiques of media stereotypes of the Asian family in general, The Grewals has come to be seen as a “seminal moment in the diversity history of …ethnic minority representation.” It argues that whilst the reality television genre has opened up opportunities to gain insights of different cultures, this does not eliminate the production of racialised stereotypes. In fact, the paper goes on to suggest that reality television, and programmes such as The Grewals, can help renormalize our understanding of cultural difference. The relationship between diversity and democracy, access and mediation, reality television and cultural pluralism will be considered in this discussion of the Asian family on screen.
Female Labor and Familial Loss: Migrating Women in Contemporary Film (Prof. Barbara Mennel, University of Florida)
Contemporary action films about sexual trafficking, such as Taken (Pierre Morel, 2008) and Trade (Marco Kreuzpaintner, 2007) portray unattached, young women who are rescued by father or brother figures reinscribing patriarchy. This reconstitution of patriarchal authority structurally relies on incomplete families with absent or incompetent mothers, and serves to continue the binary of mother-whore. When a sexually trafficked woman is attached to her own child, as in Trade, this familial structure functions as a melodramatic device that predetermines the death of the mother. Political films that adress female trafficking engage with the difficult question of children as motivator for migration into servitude and bondage. Films such as The Chicken Soup (Mario Rizzi, 2008) and It Happened Just Before (Anja Salomonowitz, 2006) complicate the binaries of mother-whore and perpetrator-victim by portraying the complex relationships between mothers and children in the motivation and reality of female migration, long distant care, and the domestic and sexual labor through which women reproduce families in the first world and often suffer under the loss of their family attachments in their sending countries. When we Leave(Feo Aladag, 2010), a Turkish-German family melodrama stages this loss in hyperbolic terms through the final and tragic accidental killing of the mother's son, intended as an honor killing of the mother-whore.
My paper maps out these different figurations of familial loss in the context of female labor in recent popular and political filmic representations of migrating women. The methodological emphasis of my paper lies in an attempt to find a theoretical language that can account for the cinematic representation of mother/daughter relationships without slipping into melodrama. In order to account for recent political films about sexual trafficking and female migration, I rely on feminist social science approaches about “chains of care,” which portray the substitute care-taking by poorer relatives and migrants of children of those women who migrate from sending countries to host countries. In addition to the sociological concept of “chains of care,” I pose the question how Leslie A. Adelson’s literary figure of “long-distance affiliation” is articulated in visual culture. My paper thus attempts to articulate a new methodological approach to the fragmentation of kinship structures through globalization and the cinematic response this evokes.
Secrets, Lies and Family Feuds in the Diaspora Space (Dr Daniela Berghahn, Royal Holloway, University of London)
Based on the premise that families are held together by their shared remembering and their complicit forgetting (Kuhn 2002), this paper investigates the significance of family secrets in Lola and Bilidikid (Kutlug Ataman, 1999) and Hidden/Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005). In both films the disclosure of a family secret culminates in a destabilization of family ties, violence and even death. The acts of remembrance and forgetting, the repressions and blind spots which haunt the family are inextricably linked to the social taboos and collective amnesias that govern Turkish German and French Algerian histories and encounters in the ‘diaspora space’.
Hidden is a prominent example of a family secret occurring in the diaspora space that is ‘inhabited, not only by those who have migrated and their descendants, but equally by those who are constructed and represented as indigenous’ (Brah 1996). In Haneke’s film, a white bourgeois Parisian family is haunted by one of the lacunae of France’s colonial history, the massacre of Algerians Paris in October 1961 (i.e. during the Algerian War 1954-1962) at the hands of the French police. The film configures this violent incident as fraternal rivalry between the film’s French protagonist Georges Laurent, aged six at the time, and his Algerian foster brother, Majid, whose parents died in the Paris massacre. 40 years later, Georges is confronted with the consequences of his betrayal (Majid’s social marginalization and his suicide) but he continues to disavow his guilt.
The family secret around which Lola and Bilidikid revolves is the sexual identity of Lola, a gay transvestite of Turkish descent, expelled from his family by his eldest brother and family patriarch Osman. Osman’s homophobia camouflages his own repressed gay desire, which leads to him first raping and subsequently killing of Lola. The film’s intensely personal plot belies its multiple resonances with issues of Turkish and German national identities. The film’s topography with its master-sites of memory, notably the Berlin Olympic Stadium, situates Turkish-German same-sex desire in the context of Germany’s long-repressed memory of the persecution of homosexuals under National Socialism. In this way, Lola and Bilidikid constructs unexpected continuities and homologies between the homophobia of the Nazis and contemporary Turkish patriarchy with its insistence upon a heteronormative family as the only viable model.