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The Italian colonial cinema: agendas and audiences

  • Ruth Ben-Ghiat (a1)

What role has culture played in shaping Italians’ experiences of Italian colonialism before and after the Second World War? How can the tools of cultural analysis be employed to understand the place and space Italian colonialism has had within Italian and European history? This article draws on and discusses the growing body of scholarly work about colonial narratives and representations (exhibitions, travel writings, etc.) but is centred on the Italian colonial cinema. It focuses, in particular, on the issue of the double-edged power of the visual in colonial films with respect to both Italian and African audiences. The article explores spectatorship under colonial conditions but also how the visual elements of colonial films contributed to or complicated the production of ‘colonial experiences’ among the many Italians who never set foot in Africa.

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1. See on this Cohn Bernard S. and Dirks Nicholas B., ‘Beyond the Fringe: The Nation State, Colonialism, and the Technologies of Power’, Journal of Historical Sociology , 1, 2, 1988, pp. 224229; Dirks Nicholas B., (ed.), Colonialism and Culture, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1992; Wright Gwendolyn, The Politics of Design in French Colonial Urbanism, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1991; Stoler Ann Laura and Cooper Frederick (eds), Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997.

2. See Chowdhry Prem, Colonial India and the Making of Empire Cinema , Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2000; Slavin David, Colonial Cinema and Imperial France (1919–39), Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2001; Ben-Ghiat Ruth, ‘Envisioning Modernity: Desire and Discipline in the Italian Fascist Film’, Critical Inquiry, 23, 1, 1996, pp. 109–144, esp. pp. 127–144; Oksiloff Assenka, Picturing the Primitive, Palgrave, New York, 2001; Shohat Ella, ‘Imagining Terra Incognita: The Disciplinary Gaze of Empire’, Public Culture, 3, 2, 1991, pp. 41–70.

3. Studies that touch on these issues include Oksiloff , Picturing the Primitive; Griffiths Alison, Wondrous Difference. Cinema, Anthropology, and Turn of the Century Visual Culture , Columbia University Press, New York, 2001; Faulkner Christopher, ‘Affective Identities: French National Cinema and the 1930s’, Canadian Journal of Film Studies, 3, 2, 1994, pp. 3–29; Stam Robert and Spencer Louise, ‘Colonialism, Racism, and Representation: An Introduction’, in Nicholls Bill (ed.), Movies and Methods, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1985, pp. 632–649; Naficy Hamid and Gabriel Teshome (eds), Otherness and the Media: The Ethnography of the Imagined and the Imaged, Harwood Academic Publishers, Langhorne, Pa., 1993; Pickering-Iazzi Robin, 'Structures of Feminine Fantasy and Italian Empire Building, 1930–1940, Italica, 77, 3, 2000, pp. 400–417.

4. On the visual culture of Italian colonialism, see above all the essays in Labanca Nicola, (ed.), L'Africa in vetrina. Storie di musei e di esposizioni coloniali in Italia , Pagus, Treviso, 1992. On Italian colonial film, see Gili Jean and Brunetta Gianpiero, L'ora africana nel cinema italiano, Rivista di studi storici, Rovereto, 1989; Hay James, Popular Film Culture in Fascist Italy, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1985, pp. 181–200.

5. See Dubow Jessica, ‘From a View on the World to a Point of View in it: Rethinking Sight, Space, and the Colonial Subject’, Interventions , 2, 1, 2000; Crary Jonathan, Techniques of the Observer, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1992; Mayne Judith, Cinema and Spectatorship, Routledge, London, 1993. For a collection of newer approaches to spectatorship, see the essays in Williams Linda (ed.), Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 1995.

6. Stoler Ann Laura and Strassler Karen, ‘Castings for the Colonial: Memory Work in “New Order” Java’, Comparative Studies in Society and History , 6, 2000.

7. On the place of cinema within fascist strategies of mass re-education, see Reich Jacqueline and Garofalo Piero (eds), Re-Viewing Fascism: Italian Cinema, 1922–1943 , Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2002; Ben-Ghiat Ruth, Fascist Modernities: Italy, 1922–1945, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2001; Hay , Popular Film Culture in Fascist Italy ; and Landy Marcia; Fascism in Film. The Italian Commercial Cinema, 1930–43, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1986.

8. Quotations from Lombrassa Giuseppe, ‘Il senno dei tigrini’, Lo schermo , November 1935, p. 12; also ‘Il cinema dell'Impero’, ibid., June 1936.

9. Quotations from Rava Maurizio, ‘I popoli africani dinanzi allo schermo’, Cinema , 1, 10 July, 1936, pp. 911, p. 10; Roberti Vero, ‘Le corazzate con le rotelle …’, Lo schermo, April 1938, p. 26.

10. Ferbo , ‘Il film coloniale’, Lo schermo , October 1937, p. 26.

11. Marcellini Romolo, ‘I nostri negri’, Lo schermo , October 1936, pp. 2022, pp. 21, 20.

12. See Sorgoni Barbara, Parole e corpi. Antropologia, discorso giuridico e politiche sessuali interrazziali nella colonia Eritrea 1890–1941 , Liguori, Naples, 1998; Dore Gianni, Antropologia e colonialismo italiano, Miscellanea, Bologna, 1996. On the mission of colonial ethnography, see Mordini Angelo, ‘Stato attuale delle ricerche etnografiche (cultura materiale)’, Etiopia, 3 (1938); Cipriani Lidio, (ed.), Ricerche antropologiche sulle genti, Rome, 1940, esp. vol. 5; Surdich Francesco, L'esplorazione italiana dell'Africa, Il Saggiatore, Milan, 1992; and Atkinson David, ‘Italian Geographies and the Making of Colonial Space’, in Ben-Ghiat Ruth and Fuller Mia (ed.), Italian Colonialism, Palgrave, New York, forthcoming 2003. On the Exhibition of Overseas Territories, see Dore Gianni, ‘Ideologia coloniale e senso comune etnografico nella Mostra delle Terre d'Oltremare’, in Labanca (ed.), L'Africa in vetrina, pp. 47–65.

13. Cappelletti Franco, ‘Attori primitivi’, Cinema , 76, 25 August, 1939, p. 139.

14. The phrase ‘uncontrolled visual field’ is David MacDougall's, from his Transcultural Cinema , Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1998, p. 69; Ferro Marc, ‘The Fiction Film and Historical Analaysis’, in Smith Paul (ed.), The Historian and Film, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1976, pp. 80–94. The field of visual anthropology has produced many insights into the process of producing and consuming images: see Devereux Leslie and Hillman Roger (eds), Fields of Vision. Essays in Film Studies, Visual Anthropology, and Photography, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1995; Crawford Peter Ian and Turton David (eds), Film as Ethnography, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1992; and Ruby Jay, Picturing Culture. Explorations of Film and Anthropology, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2001.

15. MacDougall , Transcultural Cinema , p. 262.

16. Such contradictions within Italian fascist colonial films have been addressed by Ben-Ghiat , ‘Envisioning Modernity’; Pickering-Iazzi Robin, 'Mass-Mediated Fantasies of Feminine Conquest, 1930–40, in Palumbo Patrizia (ed.), A Place in the Sun: Africa in Italian Colonial Culture from Post-Unification to the Present , University of California Press, Berkeley, forthcoming. On film stars and their audiences in fascist Italy, see Gundle Stephen, ‘Film Stars and Society in Fascist Italy’, in Reich Jacqueline and Garofalo Piero (ed.), Re-Viewing Fascism. Italian Cinema, 1922–43, Indiana University Press Bloomington, 2002, pp. 315–339. An excellent discussion of the mechanisms of female spectatorship can be found in Stacey Jackie, Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship, Routledge, London, 1994.

17. On this film see Pickering-Iazzi Robin, ‘Ways of Looking in Black and White: Female Spectatorship and the Miscege-National Body in Sotto la croce del sud’ , in Reich and Garofalo (ed.), Re-Viewing Fascism , pp. 194222; Ben-Ghiat , ‘Envisioning Modernity’, pp. 135–142; and Landy Marcia, The Folklore of Consensus. Theatricality in the Italian Cinema, 1930–43, SUNY Press, Albany, 1998, pp. 197–200.

18. On the relationship of photography and Italian colonialism, see Goglia Luigi, Colonialismo e fotografia. Il caso italiano , Sicania, Messina, 1989; the special issue of Rivista di Storia e Critica della Fotografia, 4, 5, 1983; Triulzi , (ed.), Fotografia e storia dell'Africa; and, for an overview of how colonial photography has been assessed as an historical source by scholars, Labanca Nicola, ‘Fotografia e colonialismo italiano’, in Angrisani Alberto, Immagini dalla guerra di Libia. Album Africano , eds. Labanca Nicola and Tomassini Luigi, Lacaita, Manduria, 1997, pp. 25–68.

19. On the importance of photography for the fascist state and the notion of photography as an archive of colonial identity, see Mignemi Adolpho, ‘Fotografia e ideologia coloniale’, in Triulzi Alessandro (ed.), Fotografia e storia dell'Africa. Atti del convegno internazionale Napoli—Roma 9–11 Settembre 1992 , Istituto Universitario Orientale, Naples, 1995, pp. 5258.

20. This point is well made for the Italian case by Triulzi Alessandro, ‘Fotografia e storia dell'Africa: alcune questioni di metodo’, in ibid. , pp. 145158.

21. For more general discussions of the uses of photography by colonial powers, and for theorizations about the nexus between photography and anthropology, see Pinney Christopher, Camera Indica: The Social Life of Photographs , University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1997, Chap. 1; Edwards Elizabeth, (ed.), Anthropology and Photography, 1860–1920, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1992; Green David, ‘Classified Subjects: Photography and Anthropology’, Ten-8, 14, 1984, pp. 30–37; Banta Melissa and Hinsley Curtis, From Site to Sight: Anthropology, Photography and the Power of Imagery, Peabody Museum Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1986; and the special issue of Rivista di storia e critica dell fotografia, 2, 1981.

22. See on this subject Campassi Gabriella and Sega Maria Teresa, ‘Uomo bianco, donna nera. L'immagine della donna nella fotografia coloniale’, Rivista di storia e critica della fotografia , 5, 1983, pp. 5462; for origins of fascist-era rhetoric about black women, see Surdich Francesco, La donna dell'Africa orientale nelle relazioni degli esploratori italiani 1870–1915, Bozzi, Genova, 1979. On the commodification of the black body during the fascist period, see Pinkus Karen, Bodily Regimes. Advertising under Italian Fascism, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1995, pp. 22–81. Such practices continued long after the empire fell; moreover, as Ruth Iyob has noted, colonial-era erotic images of African women continued to circulate in post-colonial East Africa, which reminds us once again that tendencies toward female objectification and commercialization transcend politics and culture. See Iyob , Madamismo and Beyond: The Construction of Eritean Women’, Nineteenth-Century Contexts, 22, 2000, pp. 217–238.

23. Piccioli Angelo, ‘La razza e l'impero’, Etiopia , September 1940.

24. Pankhurst Richard, The Political Image: The Impact of the Camera in an Ancient Independent African State', in Edwards (ed.), Anthropology and Photography , pp. 234241.

25. Campassi and Sega , ‘Uomo bianco, donna nera’, p. 59. It would of course be mistaken to posit a uniformly negatively reaction among African women to the act of being photographed: women were often paid for their portraits, especially those shot in studios; moreover, as Elisabetta Bini points out, many photos were taken in the context of a relation of collaboration between African women and Italian men (such as of those that which immortalized madamas). Bini Elisabetta, La rappresentazione delle donne nere nelle fotografie coloniali italiane', unpublished paper prepared for a graduate seminar on Italian Colonialism, New York University, autumn 2002, p. 13.

26. Lidio Cipriani's photographs of his fieldwork and resulting racial classifications can be found in his own books, such as In Africa dal Capo al Cairo , Bemporad, Florence, 1932. It is worth noting that Cipriani embraced the regime's racial ideology in all of its articulations, becoming a signatory of the Manifesto of Racial Scientists in 1938. I thank Jeffrey Feldman for this information.

27. Triulzi , (ed.), ‘Fotografia e storia dell'Africa’, p. 152. For photography as a violation of its subject, see Sontag Susan, On Photography , Dell, New York, 1977. For an overview of concepts of resistance and the ‘everyday forms’ it can assume, see Ortner Sherry, ‘Resistance and Ethnographic Refusal’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 1995, pp. 173–193.

28. Ambrosino Salvatore, ‘Cinema e propaganda in Africa Orientale Italiana’, Ventesimo Secolo , 1, 1990, pp. 138139. Programming and audiences for the ‘Cinque maggio’ theatre in Addis Abeba is given in ‘Il cinema degli soldati in AOI’, Cinema, June 1940.

29. Notice of this cinema is given in L'Azione coloniale , 29 September 1938.

30. Modelled on those used by the Soviets, cinema-cars had been used in Italy since 1927.

31. Figures in Ambrosini , ‘Cinema e propaganda’, p. 145.

32. Ibid.

33. Vasudevan Ravi, ‘Addressing the Spectator of a “Third World” National Cinema: The Bombay “Social” Film of the 1940s and 1950s’, Screen , Winter, 1995, p. 324; Ambler Charles, ‘Popular Films and Colonial Audiences: The Movies in Northern Rhodesia’, American Historical Review, 106, 2, February 2001, p. 89.

34. Roberti Vero, ‘Le corazzate con le rotelle …’, Lo schermo , April 1938, p. 26; Mattia Ettore, ‘Pubblico etiopico’, Cinema, 90, 25 March 1940, pp. 171–172. Parallel views and practices are related in Ambler, ‘Popular Films and Colonial Audiences’, p. 100.

35. Lombrassa , ‘Il senno dei Tigrini’, p. 31.

36. See Roberti , ‘Le corazzate con le rotelle …’, p. 26; Croce Giuseppe, ‘In AOI con reparto fotocinematografico dell'Istituto Nazionale LUCE’, Lo schermo, July 1936, pp. 13–14, p. 13.

37. Rava Maurizio uses the term ‘boomerang’ in Rava Maurizio, ‘I popoli africani dinanzi allo schermo’, Cinema , 1, 10 July 1936, pp. 911, p. 11.

38. For these debates, see Rava , ‘I popoli africani dinanzi allo schermo’; Balestrazzi Luigi, ‘La cinematografia e l'Impero’, Rassegna sociale dell'Africa italiana , 8, 1939; Vittorio Mussolini V. M., ‘Cinema per gli indigeni’ Cinema, 64, 25 February 1939; and Ambrosini , 'Cinema e propaganda'p. 137, who quotes from a 26 April 1938 letter of Colonello Gigante to the Comando Truppe Regie complaining about the projection of 1860.

39. Ambrosini , ‘Cinema e propaganda’, p. 136.

40. Ambler Both and Vasudevan conclude that spectatorship in situations of linguistic blockage resembles the visceral and interactive viewing modes of the silent screen's ‘cinema of attractions’; Ambler , ‘Popular Films and Colonial Audiences’, p. 89; Vasudevan , ‘Addressing the Spectator of a “Third World” National Cinema’, p. 319; and, for the concept behind it, Gunning Tom, ‘The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, its Spectator, and the Avant-Garde’, in Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative , Elaesser Thomas with Barker Adam (eds), BFI, London, 1990.

41. Mattia , ‘Pubblico ethiopico’.

42. Roberti , ‘Le corrazzate con le rotelle …’, p. 26.

43. Marcellini Romolo, ‘I nostri negri’, Lo schermo , October 1936, p. 21.

44. Mattia , ‘Pubblico etiopico’; Rava , ‘I popoli africani dinanzi allo schermo’; Cappelletti, ‘Attori primitivi’, p. 139.

45. Capelletti , ‘Attori primitivi’, p. 139.

46. Pratt Mary Louise, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation , Routledge, New York, 1992, p. 7.

47. See as examples of this work, which owes much to Mikhail Bakhtin's Rabelais and His World , Indiana, Bloomington, 1984: Natalie Zemon Davis, Society and Culture in Early Modern France, Duckworth, London, 1975; Burke Peter, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, New York University Press, New York, 1978; Passerini Luisa, Torino operaia e fascista, Einaudi, Turin, 1982.

48. Ambler reports that audiences in Northern Rhodesia also laughed at ‘inappropriate’ moments, but he contends that this was less an expression of opposition than of derision at the overdone emotion displayed in melodramatic Hollywood scenes. ‘Popular Films and Colonial Audiences’, p. 98.

49. On the complexity of daily relations under Italian colonialism, see Fuller Mia ‘Agency, Innocence, and Blame’, unpublished paper delivered at the American Historical Association, 6–9 January 1999, and Irma Taddia's pioneering works, Autobiografie africane, FrancoAngeli, Milan, 1996, and La memoria dell'impero, Manduria, Lacaita, 1988.

50. Diawara Manthia, ‘Black Spectatorship: Problems of Identification and Resistance’, Screen , Autumn 1988, pp. 6676, who also notes that the phenomenon of audience identification with negative media portrayals of them has not been fully explored; also Fiske John, ‘Movements of Television: Neither the Text nor the Audience’, in Seiter Ellen et al. (eds), Remote Control: Television, Audience, and Cultural Power, Routledge, London, 1989, pp. 56–78. Chowdry's Empire Cinema shows how such ‘resisting spectatorship’ can transmute into public and violent opposition to colonialism.

51. Mattia , ‘Pubblico etiopico’. Homi Bhabha's insightful analysis of mimicry as both ‘resemblance and menace’ is relevant here: see his ‘Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse’, October , 28, 1984, pp. 125133.

This article originated as a keynote speech at the Association for the Study of Modern Italy conference held in London in December 2001; I thank Alessandro Triulzi and other audience members there for their cogent comments. I am also grateful to Lisa Tiersten, Mia Fuller and Elliot Jurist for their comments on drafts of this article.

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