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World Cinema: Film as Cultural History

By Ray Zone

Cinemas of the World
Film and Society from 1895 to the Present
By James Chapman
Reaktion Books
$29.95 hardbound, 480 pps.
ISBN 1-86189-162-8


Published as part of a "Globalities" series by Reaktion Press, which reinterprets world history in a concise and thoughtful way, Cinemas of the World, in the words of James Chapman, is concerned "with the relationships between films and the societies and cultures in which they have been produced and consumed." Chapman's approach is that of a cultural historian and not a film theorist in formulating a global perspective on film. Accordingly, Chapman has structured his book geographically rather than chronologically.

Each of the five separate parts of the book include an introductory overview. The five sections include Film History, Silent Cinema, Hollywood Cinema, European Cinemas, World Cinemas and a Conclusion. The book begins with a succinct overview of film study methodologies, and "A Short History of Film History." The acceptance of cinema as a legitimate field for academic study took place during the 1960s, and Chapman notes its inception with the efforts in 1960 of British filmmaker Thorold Dickinson teaching courses on film at the Slade School of Fine Art and formation in 1969 of the Slade Film History Register as "a central record of film material of interest to historians." 

After an April 1968 conference on "Film and the Historian" at University College in London and a series of international conferences on similar themes in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a film and history movement emerged. This movement, says Chapman, "was concerned initially with encouraging the use of archive film, especially newsreels and documentaries, for historical teaching and research."

In a discussion of national cinemas, Chapman estimates that approximately 4,000 feature films a year are produced worldwide and the leading film-producing countries are the United States, India and Japan. Since the 1970s, India has been the most prolific film-producing nation, with between 700 and 800 films released annually. More than 100 countries have a motion picture industry of some sort.

Within the general section on European Cinemas and a subchapter titled "Poetic Realism, Socialist Realism and the Creative Interpretation of Actuality," Chapman addresses the beginnings of the documentary movement. "There is no straightforward definition of realism in relation to the cinema," Chapman writes. "Realism is more than just true-to-life stories; it is also an aesthetic, a style, a mode of expression. The 1930s gave rise to an array of different kinds of realism, all imbued with nationally specific characteristics and used to various artistic and political ends." 

After discussing the Poetic Realism found in French films of the '30s with the work of Jean Renoir, Chapman remarks that "Socialist Realism," in the Soviet Union, "provides a rare example of an aesthetic that came to dominate the production of an entire national cinema," but concludes by stating that "there was, in fact, nothing very ‘realistic' at all about Socialist Realism, which projected an idealized image of life in Stalinist Russia."

In discussing the rise of the British documentary movement in 1929 and the early 1930s, Chapman notes that "its influence has been exaggerated. There is evidence to suggest, for example, that documentary films were considerably less successful with cinema audiences, and were thus less attractive to exhibitors, than they were in the eyes of progressive film critics." Regarding the GPO (General Post Office) Film Unit's Night Mail (1936; Harry Watt and Basil Wright, dirs.), the most acclaimed documentary of the 1930s, Chapman observes that it "was less a film of social import than a lyrical and self-consciously aestheticized promotional film for the Royal Mail."

By utilizing the talents of poet W.H. Auden and composer Benjamin Britten, a film such as Night Mail  "enjoyed a degree of cultural kudos that was otherwise lacking for British cinema in comparison with countries such as France, Germany and the Soviet Union." Interestingly, Chapman also adds that the critical success the British documentary achieved in the 1930s also contributed to "the critical disdain and historical neglect of popular genre films" in Britain during this same period.

In retrospect, Chapman concedes that "the short films of the 1930s paved the way for the celebrated narrative-documentary features of the Second World War," and sees a continuation of the "Griersonian tradition of intellectual independence and social conscience"  in the Free Cinema movement of the 1950s and the socially and politically engaged TV docu-dramas of Ken Loach and Tony Garnett in the 1960s.

Documentary filmmakers can gain insight from the social and cultural context of cinema history in this book. The relative importance of nonfiction film in different cultures, and, to a certain degree, the level of social realism in narrative film itself, is a significant indicator of free discourse in society.


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