Excerpt from World Socialist Cinema: Alliances, Affinities and Solidarities in the Global Cold War
Book Cover, World Socialist Cinema
What follows is an excerpt from the Introduction to World Socialist Cinema: Alliances, Affinities and Solidarities in the Global Cold War – coming out with University of California Press in June 2023.
My forthcoming book World Socialist Cinema: Alliances, Affinities and Solidarities in the Global Cold War takes as its focal point the history of the Tashkent Festival of Cinemas of Asia, Africa and Latin America in the 1960s-1970s. I am taking this festival – and the body of work it screened - as a center of gravity for a specific configuration of world socialist cinema – one of many, sometimes overlapping, sometimes competing socialist cine-geographies, to use the term from Eshun and Gray (Eshun and Gray 2011). The book investigates the intersection of the entangled cinematic geographies and histories of internationalist solidarities and of trans-racial affinities, of personal bonds and institutional connections, of multi-faceted artistic expressions and political commitments, and the role that gender played in shaping them.
The cinematic formation that manifested at Tashkent resists many of the categorizations that we have come to accept in film history. And as the first step towards to coming to terms with it this book takes on an ambitious goal of examining not only the material networks but also the forms – artistic, cultural, discursive, ideological – that were broadly shared across the film cultures of the Global South and former Soviet bloc. Doing so necessarily evokes the affects, ideologies and social structures that provided common references and moments of recognition for those millions across former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, as well as much of Asia, Africa and Latin America. The relations within this space were highly uneven, the motivations for participation greatly varied, and its agents often perceived and narrated it differently. Yet taken together it constituted a major site where ideological and aesthetic positions and worldviews were articulated and negotiated, and a different kind of world cinema was taking shape.
Such heterogeneity and instability lend themselves poorly to both national(ist) narratives and internationalist histories of militant political cinema, which dominate accounts of this period in film scholarship. As such, the book also constructs a different geography of knowledge, one that resists the Anglo-Atlantic Euro-centric canon of film history or Area studies compartmentalization (Harootunian 2012). This shared sphere produced a different, situated notion of humanist universalism – which at times overlapped with the notion of socialist internationalism and at other times departed and deviated from it. Irreducible to North-South, East-West, Orientalist or Cold War binaries, these networks borrowed and transformed epistemological models across various divides in complex and interconnected ways. Placing cinematic production that constituted these networks in relation to each other, therefore, produces a powerful shared body of work – one I term world socialist cinema – a unique historic cinematic formation, through which to explore the cultural and political dynamics of the era.
Photo of Tashkent Festival of Cinemas; Courtesy the Author
As much as they were shaped by the total Cold War order, the transnational and transcontinental movements at the center of this study were directed at transforming it. But they operated under the consensus that socialism – however differently understood, imagined or practiced – should form the shared horizon of that transformation. This horizon was for some a dream worthy of struggle and self-sacrifice, while for others it manifested as oppressively real negotiations with the demands of the state. For some it opened new opportunities, for others it delivered something other than what it promised. Moreover, socialism as discussed in this book did not lend itself to a single definition, existing in different forms in terms of both the specific economic and social state organization (for countries under state socialism), and ideological orientation (for example, in terms of its inclusion in national constitutions or regional formations – such as Nehruvian socialism, Arab socialism, or African socialism). The neoliberalism that pervaded all discussions of socialism in the post-Cold War era discredited it as, at best, naïve or opportunistic. As a result, all the cultural production directly associated with it has been largely discussed as either propaganda or, should it have any artistic value, as implicit or explicit dissent. For works produced outside of the Socialist bloc, connections to socialism, either as ideology or as production mode, have been systematically downplayed or subjected to a similar set of Cold War binaries. I argue, instead, that carefully reconsidering both the promises and realities of global socialism in all its complexity and the body of films it produced reconfigures how we think of the history and geography of cinema, at the very least.
The Tashkent festival foregrounded a shared awareness on the part of the socialist and postcolonial nations of cinema’s multiple social and cultural functions – as political motivator, agent of international solidarity, cultural diplomacy, national or regional cultural identity, as well as an explicit acknowledgement of cinema’s important potential in education in its broadest, political and epistemological, senses. This study, then, is part of a larger body of scholarship which demonstrates how for much of the 20th century audiovisual media was crucial to the construction of socialist internationalism and cosmopolitanism. And by the mid-20th century in particular, I argue, cinema in the socialist world came to occupy a rather privileged role, especially when it comes to international cultural diplomacy, and nowhere more so than in its relationship to the Third World.
There are many reasons for that: its industrial/technological basis, its collective production mode and mass and public consumption, and, finally, its profitability were all integral to this status, as was cinema’s popular appeal. As an industrial art, cinema came to emblematize technological progress, a triumph of modernization – whose very existence, let alone international visibility, spoke to the success of the alternative (socialist) modernization model, and in its global circulation it was akin to space exploration, albeit more accessible. Its collaborative mode of production was a fitting model for collectivism, which socialism celebrated, and a fitting experiment in new economic organizations of labor. Its mass and public consumption made it particularly fitting as a mode of social and political (as well as, of course, aesthetic) education – as well as a good showcase for the state. For most socialist economies, which invested in the cultural public sector, by the mid-20th century it also became one of the most profitable sectors, especially through film import and export (Roth-Ey 2014; Kosanova 2015). At the same time, for the newly independent post-colonial states international visibility through festivals and co-production was often the only road to financial viability of the new medium. Even in the countries where socialist and leftist cultures were in oppositional relation to the state, the independent film production and exhibition through alternative, non-commercial channels was typically tied to leftist politics (if by necessity, having to be opposed to economic hegemonies controlling the film industries), often leading to increased international collaboration – which the Soviet bloc eagerly extended.
Photo of Tashkent Festival of Cinemas; Courtesy the Author
Beyond these reasons, there is much to be said about the affective impact of cinema and its world-making potential. Paul Gilroy’s account of the role of records in shaping a transnational cultural and political Black consciousness provides a good model for thinking of affective force of cultural objects and technologies: For a spell, plastic discs stuck with colored paper — ‘records’ — furnished unlikely and unanticipated vectors for a restless, traveling sensibility. They became part of counter-national culture-making, and their history extends arguments about the role of communicative technologies in augmenting and mediating forms of social and political solidarity beyond the imagined communities achieved via the almost magical agencies of print and cartography. (Gilroy 2001, p. 272) While cinema, unlike the music records, had closer ties to both official cultures and nation state, through its narrative and audiovisual heterogeneity it nonetheless provided a possibility for conjuring complex imagined and affective communities. As Łukasz Stanek, following Édouard Glissant, argues for the view of transnational socialist architecture as a form of “socialist worldmaking,” I similarly posit cinema in its transnational iteration as providing powerful and often unexpected imaginaries of future communities (Stanek 2021).Through its variety of cinematic forms – from travelogues and industrial documentaries to popular genre films and art cinema – the history of the Tashkent film festival provides a unique glimpse into this process and an opportunity to discern some of its imaginary forms.
In its understanding of such worldmaking, World Socialist Cinema offers a history of world cinema rooted largely in cinematic expressions and experiences of the world beyond its Euro- and US-centric circulatory networks. I approach this world cinema as a powerful extension of the ideals and practices of 20th century socialism, broadly conceived: as an expression of official ideologies and a tool for disseminating and mobilizing belief systems, and at the same time as a reflection and mediation of collective experiences, as well as a way of constituting communities through both filmmaking and film viewing. The close and interdependent relationship between the state and film production and exhibition within the socialist cinema, as well as cinema’s costly industrial apparatus made it much more subject to top-down processes. And yet, its collective mode of production and consumption, the democratic nature of its reach, the indexicality and heterogeneity of its formal structures, to say nothing of the strength of its visceral and affective impact, made cinema into a powerful interface with genuinely popular culture, both reflecting and asserting the agency of the people, validating their experiences and contributing to the way communities are formed.
The exclusion of this history from our collective memory imposed by the “end of the cold war” and the assumption of the worldwide victory of neoliberalism that it triggered, has resulted in, among other things, a skewed image of the complex dynamics and social and political functions played by cinema in the 20th century. A redrawing of this cinematic history and its geography – as a record of encounters, travels, and fragile and at times short-lived but nonetheless powerful shared vision of the world – allows us to position the cinemas of Asia, Africa and Latin America in relation to those of Soviet Union and Socialist bloc as constituting radically different contours of what we can think of as World Cinema. A careful (re)consideration of this history, among other things, helps interrogate the function of cinema/media in the construction of solidarity, whose future is made ever more complex but also pressing now that globalization and migration “crisis” have further redefined the global experience of neoliberal racial capitalism. All the more pressing is Sune Haugbolle’s call that “If we as intellectual, political, and social historians want to produce locally embedded global histories of the Left, we have to travel with these people and follow them out of our comfort zones if necessary” (2019, p. 301-304).
I hope this book can be an invitation to travel out of our comfort zones together, and together begin mapping a different conception of world cinema, remaining equally attentive to the scars and the dreams which mark this history.
 My understanding of the categories of socialism and the socialist world coincides with the recent historical formulations as articulated in, for example, James Mark, Artemy M. Kalinovsky, and Steffi Marung’s introduction to Alternative Globalizations: Eastern Europe and the Postcolonial World, ed. James Mark, Artemy M. Kalinovsky, and Steffi Marung (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2020), 1–2; James Mark and Tobias Rupprecht’s “The Socialist World in Global History: From Absentee to Victim to Co-producer,” in The Practice of Global History: European Perspectives, ed. Matthias Middell (London: Bloomsbury, 2020), 81–84; and James Marks and Paul Betts’s Socialism Goes Global: The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the Age of Decolonization (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022). Return to text.
 Some examples in different geographic contexts, in addition to those already mentioned, include works by Marsha Siefert, Ros Gray, and Mariano Mestman. Return to text.
Eshun, Kodwo and Ros Gray. 2011. “The Militant Image: A Ciné‐Geography,” Third Text
Gilroy, Paul. 2001. Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Harootunian, Harry. 2012. “‘Memories of Underdevelopment’ After Area Studies,” Positions:
East Asia Cultures Critique 20(1): 7–35.Haugbolle, Sune. 2019. “Entanglement, Global History and the Arab Left,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 51(2): 301–4.
Kosinova, Marina. 2015. “Mezhdunarodnye otnosheniia sovetskoi kinematografii v gody
ottepeli,” Sovremennye issledovaniia sotsial’nykh problem 50(6): 631–48.
Roth-Ey, Kristin. 2014. Moscow Prime Time: How the Soviet Union Built the Media Empire that
Lost the Cultural Cold War. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Stanek, Łukasz. 2021. Architecture in Global Socialism: Eastern Europe, West Africa, and the
Middle East in the Cold War. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Masha Salazkina's work incorporates transnational approaches to film theory and cultural history with a focus on the historical relationship between the Socialist bloc and countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Her first book In Excess: Sergei Eisenstein's Mexico (University of Chicago Press, 2009) positions Eisenstein's unfinished Mexican project and theoretical writings within the wider context of post-revolutionary Mexico and global cultures of modernity. Dr Salazkina has published essays in Cinema Journal, Film History, October, Screen, Framework, Canadian Journal of Film Studies, and many edited collections on such topics as the geopolitics of film and media theory production; theorizations of World Cinema; history of film education; cinemas of solidarity and internationalism. She also co-edited Sound, Speech, Music in Soviet and Post-Soviet Cinema (2015) and Global Perspectives on Amateur Film Histories and Cultures (2022, both from Indiana University Press).