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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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