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The Postcolonial Uncanny

Luca Caminati



The Postcolonial Uncanny

Book cover designed by Egor Shmonin

What follows is an adapted excerpt from the opening chapter of Luca Caminati’s forthcoming book Traveling Auteurs: The Geopolitics of Postwar Italian Cinema, to be published by Indiana University Press.


The book Traveling Auteurs rewrites a small fraction of Italian cinema history and reinserts the Global South into that narrative. It focuses on the 1950s and 1960s when, triggered by the new political vision developed by the Bandung project of creating an alternative to the bipolar Cold War system, a few Italian filmmakers produced remarkably original works devoted to the political, economic, and social changes taking place in Africa and Asia. Among them, Roberto Rossellini made films in India between 1957 and 1958, Pier Paolo Pasolini went on shooting in Africa and the Middle East between 1967 and 1970, and Michelangelo Antonioni traveled to Communist China. 

Rossellini with an Elephant
Rossellini with an Elephant. Photograph probably by Jean Herman (Fondo Rossellini, Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, Rome)

Each of these filmmakers interfaced with the “Orient” alongside all the concern and anxiety that this signifier has acquired in the Italian and Western imaginary. For context, Edward Said defines the “Orient” as “almost a European invention, [which] had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences.” [1] This “invention” that through repetition and replenishment has perpetuated itself and percolated in Western culture is still very much part of our contemporary visual landscape. From the end of the eighteenth century until now, the multiplication of racial clichés has, if anything, strengthened. Television first and the World Wide Web today have filled screens with exoticized and racialized images, where the “Other” is still a figure of anxiety. [2] As in an unmodifiable recipe, all the stories, films, memoirs, YouTube vloggers, and podcasts still project an “Orient” made of tigers, gurus, sacred rivers, funeral pyres, colorful women, scrawny elders, dwarves, trained monkeys, and breathtaking landscapes; and, at the centre, standing tall, the impassive traveler, his gendered, colonial, domineering gaze as the fulcrum of it all. Rossellini, Pasolini, and Antonioni are part of this orientalist discourse: often sporting a Safari jacket, as with Rossellini in India; or cruising for sex like Pasolini; or taking a hieratic detached position like Antonioni. The “Orient” also evokes, it seems to me, that “uncanny” phenomenon analyzed by Sigmund Freud in his 1917 essay “Die Unheimlich.” As Freud explains, Unheimlich is that which is familiar and should not be–that which should remain repressed and yet resurfaces at a conscious level. Homi Bhabha, when translating the concept of Unheimlich into English, uses the term “unhomeliness”: literally not feeling at home (different from “homeless”: without a home), along with a feeling of unease, of being disoriented. [3] What Bhabha points to geographically is not just the encounter with the absolute alterity of uninhabited spaces–the wilderness, the desert, or the arctics–but the encounter with the postcolonial space. [4] Those who have traveled into the postcolony can indeed immediately acknowledge that the lengthy and significant force of colonial domination has produced remains of the empire. These remains catch the traveler’s eye at every turn, between hotels, roads, country clubs, and resorts, all enveloped in an “unsettling” space. [5] Western travelers find themselves interacting with this new world through either mystical fusion or through a normalizing and stereotyping process of anxiety, in an attempt to compensate for this postcolonial Unheimlich. [6]

Pasolini's reflection
Pasolini’s reflection (Notes for an African Orestes)

This anxiety of the “white man traveler” in postcolonial spaces has been theorized as the ultimate orientalist experience, from Said’s Orientalism to Mary Luis Pratt’s Imperial Eye, Karen Caplan’s Questions of Travel, Alison Griffiths’s Wondrous Difference, and Fatimah Tobing Rony’s The Third Eye, just to mention the best known theoretical engagements with this issue. [7] While I acknowledge and accept these readings, I am interested in turning the term travel into an actual instrument that can be used to fix, rig, or sabotage the chain of clichés that animate orientalist discourses. I want to look at travels that, while inevitably participating in the orientalist/tourist gaze, are problematic enough not to fit in the mold, and offer a way out, so to speak, of the orientalist quicksand that traps the Western traveler every time they try to “represent the Other.” Each of my chosen traveling filmmakers is, in fact, involved in a double articulation of solidarity and orientalism, two registers that a symptomatic reading of their work makes emblematically and embarrassingly clear.

For example, Rossellini’s films shot in India between 1957 and 1958, which include a feature film, India: Matri Bhumi (1959), and two documentaries developed for Italian and French national television. Respectively titled L’India vista da Rossellini (1959) and J’ai fait un beau voyage (1958), they are comprised of ten episodes of approximately one hour each, in which Rossellini blends expository documentary, political commentary, and personal travel observations. It is in these personal inserts, diary entries, visual vignettes, quips, and narrative asides–in short, in this “personal camera” mode (to use Rascaroli’s term)–that Rossellini lays out the irresolvable aesthetic, political, and ideological conundrums that the Western artist faces when traveling outside of the known. [8] Moreover, Rossellini arrived in India upon direct invitation from Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, an admirer of his postwar films, who felt the need to invite the neorealist master to document the immense modernizing effort of his nation. Nehru wanted to have a European name-brand as spokesperson for himself and his Congress Party, and who better than Rossellini, whose cinema deployed a rhetoric of the “rebirth of a nation” in his home country! Indeed, Rossellini, it has to be said, went above and beyond the call of duty, building an ode to India’s unprecedented scale of modernization, …. Rossellini managed to write a personal diary and made an essay-film about his encounter with the vastness and irreducibility of the Indian subcontinent. While some of this material looks cute, and a bit passé to our own contemporary postmodern and postcolonial perspective, Rossellini’s India project sits as a major achievement in expressing the spirit of the Bandung Man, that spirit of possibility of a third way out of Cold War dynamics. [9] 

The Nanjing Bridge over the Yangtze River, “crooked and tottering” (Chung Kuo)

Through the filmmakers’ stories, the book highlights the impact that the different postcolonial struggles had on them, challenging the understanding of national cinemas and expanding the notion of the auteur. First, I view Antonioni’s, Pasolini’s, and Rossellini’s responses to the liberation and revolutionary movements in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia as integral to their whole artistic and political projects. Beyond the idea of the “encounter with the other,” this actual embracing and sharing of a political project is disseminated in the afterlives of the filmmakers themselves. That is, there is a postcolonial Pasolini, Rossellini, and Antonioni, each of whom would not be understandable without these experiences. Moreover, I engage with European cinema at large: that is, I think and teach European cinemas in a larger geopolitical context. This is very important if we consider the extent to which the notion of national cinema is under attack in film circles, and yet how much it is replicated due to institutional constraints (the “Introduction to X Cinema” is often the only class that protects small area and language study programs from neoliberal university administrators). The book thus rethinks the geopolitics of national cinemas and present a contrapuntal narrative to the very often linear teleological tale presented by many national cinemas’ textbooks. In doing so, it rearranges the “great cultural archive(as Said calls it in Culture and Imperialism), that is, that familiarity with the Western empire which doesn’t make you question any sense of separation or fracture. Instead, the encounters with these “rich cultural documents,” where the interaction between West and East is made evident, is a way to challenge any univocal mode of explicating both cinema and the world. [10] 

It is with this attitude that I approach my Traveling Auteurs’ often forgotten travel essay films: by bringing back to life a world of political and aesthetic potential for the study of both national cinema and the auteur to challenge the terms, and if possible, to regenerate these obsolete parameters.



[1] Said, Orientalism, 5. Return to text.

[2] On the vast bibliography on exotic images in contemporary cinema, I recommend King, Lost in Translation; Huggan, Postcolonial Exotic; Weaver-Hightower and Hulme, eds., Postcolonial Film; and Kwon, Odagiri, and Baek, eds., Colonial Cinema. Return to text.

[3] Bhabha, Location of Culture, 22. Return to text.

[4] Blunt and McEwan, eds., Postcolonial Geographies. Return to text.

[5] Bhabha, 2. Return to text.

[6] For Bhabha, fetishism has the same psychological root as the racial stereotype: “The functional link between fixation of the fetish and the stereotype (or stereotype as fetish) is even more relevant. For fetishism is always a ‘play’ or vacillation between the archaic affirmation of wholeness/similarity–in Freud’s terms: ‘All men have penises’; in ours: ‘All men have the same skin/race/culture’–and the anxiety associated with lack and difference–again, for Freud ‘Some do not have penises’; for us ‘Some do not have the same skin/race/culture.’” Bhabha, 109. Return to text.

[7] Said, Orientalism; Pratt, Imperial Eyes; Kaplan, Questions of Travel; Griffiths, Wondrous Difference; Rony, Third Eye. Return to text.

[8] Rascaroli, Personal Camera. Rascaroli rightly points to the “inheritance of the decidedly auteurist and anti-mainstream, anti-establishment cinema of the new waves, and of European and North-American avant-gardes” for this mode of filmmaking. See Rascaroli, 6. Return to text.

[9] A poem by Pier Paolo Pasolini, “L’uomo di Bandung” (Bandung Man) was published in 1964, and is now available in English, see Pasolini, “Bandung Man” or for the Italian version, see Pasolini, “L’uomo di Bandung.” Return to text.

[10] Said, Culture and Imperialism, xxi, 20. Return to text.


Luca Caminati is Professor of Film and Moving Image Studies at Concordia University, Montreal. He is co-editor with James Leo Cahill of the collection Cinema of Exploration: Essays on an Adventurous Film Practice (2021). His new forthcoming book, Traveling Auteurs. The Geopolitics of Post-War Italian Cinema (Indiana UP, 2024), investigates travel films of Italian directors in the Global South. He’s currently at work on a new project titled The Italian Anticolonial Film Archive: Global Counterculture (1955-1975).

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