Policy & Practice - A Development Education Review



De-Westernising Film Studies: An Interview with Rod Stoneman

Development Education and Film
Spring 2014

This issue of Policy and Practice carries an interview with Rod Stoneman, Director of the Huston School of Film & Digital Media at the National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG), formerly Chief Executive of Bord Scannán na hÉireann/the Irish Film Board and previously a Deputy Commissioning Editor in the Independent Film and Video Department at Channel 4 Television.  He speaks about his experience of filmmaking in the global South and efforts towards challenging the Western ideological and theoretical conceptions that have historically underpinned the medium of film and the discipline of film studies.

Do you see film as a universal medium/art form?

Well the intellectual framework in which I was trained at university was structural theory, new French theory, and that of course means that the moment I hear the word ‘universal’ I reach for my revolver because universal is, exactly, a naturalising ideological delusion.  While I do, of course, accept that film is relatively accessible across cultures, nothing is ‘universal’ or ‘natural’.  It brings to mind something I read in Scientific American once when I was younger.  There were some anthropologists in New Guinea and they were talking to a group of New Guinea islanders who had never had access to Western media in any form.  So the anthropologists used a Polaroid instant camera to take a photograph of the tribal chieftain – his head and shoulders – then they passed him the photograph and asked: “What do you think of that?”  The chief replied: “I don’t know; it looks like a coloured leaf to me.”  One of the anthropologists said: “Actually it’s an image of you.  It’s a picture of you that I’ve just taken on this machine”, and explains “look, there it is, it’s taken from the side: that’s your nose, your ear, your chin.”  But the tribal chieftain insists: “That’s not me. I’ve got two eyes, there is only one eye on that thing you’ve done.  It isn’t a picture of me.”  And that story for me was a kind of crucial epiphany enabling us to imagine ourselves outside of a frame which has been entirely naturalised and universalised by the [Western] media.

            And trying to think about cultural specificity all these years later, I’m sitting down in Paris at the rough cut of Tin Pis Run (Pengau Nengo, 1991) which is the first feature film coming out of New Guinea.  Seeing this rough cut … and in all these things, whether it be Papuans or Brits or Americans, whoever, you’d always be trying to feed stuff into the understanding of how the film’s going to work, as a premonition for the audience, without playing Miramax and wearing jackboots and saying: ‘We want the opening re-cut or the ending changed’.  There’s this sequence where, as I recall, some people from the village are outside and they’re arguing and fighting – it was a mess.  And then I said: “I have completely lost the narrative here; I can’t see what’s happening.”  And they said: “Well you know the first argument takes place in his village, and then they go to the other person’s village and that’s where they have the fight”.  And I said: “Well how am I going to know that?  It just looks like the same village.”  And they said: “Well of course  anyone can see they are two different villages because the huts in that village, which are near the sea, are all two-foot off the ground on breeze blocks, and the huts in that village, which are up on the mountain, are sitting on the ground because they’re not near the sea.”  And I said: “Well, thank you for pointing this out to me, but, frankly, that detail is not visible to a Western audience and we need this film to work for British television. However, I don’t want you to introduce completely extraneous distortions to your filmmaking just for us.” They said they would think about it and they came back with a brilliant solution.  They just added two shots of the two guys in a pickup truck going from one village into the hills to the other village!  You see, they knew that it doesn’t destroy the rhythm of the film, it doesn’t harm the language of the film and mere Brits, who are not used to the huts on stilts or whatever, understand the important narrative points.  So that’s a small but typical example of how, when we were involved in the making of the film, and not just buying a finished film, we would have some effect on it but with a care and (I hope) respect to ensure that we weren’t saying: ‘Oh, we want an action scene here or a sexy ending there’, or some such.  So that, for me, is an example of film working as a universal medium.


Do you consider the West as a category that is always shifting, in motion, and therefore unstable?  Should this West or even the Western be perceived solely as or through geographical frameworks?

I don’t really have clear answers to these questions.  I think that, as we know from Heraclitus, a long and pre-Socratic time ago, everything is shifting and in motion. Nothing stops, it is all changing; North and South, and the interactions between North and South, so any illusion that it is stable and fixed is dubious and should be examined.  In terms of geographical frameworks, I mean, it’s based on geography because most of Africa, Asia and Latin America is in the South and most of the North is in the North!  But obviously we are now living within a globalised monoculture which interpolates around the world and exceeds its geographical provenance.

            But it’s complex: you’ve got music from Africa, which through slavery goes to America and then makes blues, and then it’s incorporated into white American music, and then white Brits start imitating the blues in the sixties.  John Mayall and many others are playing the blues here; that supports the black people who were already making this music in America.  So that’s an example from the sixties of a zig-zagging motion: music that came from Africa goes to America, crosses back over to Britain, goes back to America stronger, and then the West discovers Ali Farka Touré [from Mali] and a version of this music happens in Africa as though it has never really left that continent!  And then he works well with Ry Cooder in Los Angeles.  It’s great, isn’t it?

I think one of the things we are getting at is that the West or the Western, beyond being a sort of geographical location, may evoke a certain kind of cultural or ideological way of thinking and perceiving film.  Does that have a kind of resonance for you?

Antonioni made a film called The Passenger (1975) and there’s a scene where the journalist, played by Jack Nicholson, says to a guerrilla leader in the Sahel something like “Can I do an interview with you?”  And the guerrilla leader says: “Mr Locke, there are satisfactory answers to all your questions, but I don’t think you understand how little you can learn from them.  Your questions are much more revealing about yourself than my answers will be about me.”  So that’s the difficult thing: how we understand that even our questions are predicated on habits, perspectives, ways of thinking.

            One other little recent example which is fresh in my memory – which happened by a sort of accident – is when Larry Sider, who organises the School of Sound every two years in the South Bank in London, asked me to be the interlocutor for Gaston Kaboré [Burkinabé filmmaker]; to do a session talking specifically about his use of sound and the deployment of music in his films.  So because I have known Gaston for a long time – we put some Channel 4 money into some of his films in the 1980s and 1990s – I was happy to do this.  Gaston was very articulate and clear in the session, and I thought it seemed to have gone down well.  I didn’t realise until I got an email afterwards from Larry that unconsciously it had had exactly the de-Westernising effect we are talking about. 

            Apparently over the years there’s been an interesting mixture of people who go to the School of Sound: it’s a productive combination actually – filmmakers, composers, technicians, academics, students, musicians.  But this whole particular mixture of people has, in the end, tended towards the Walter Murch approach to sound design in a certain way.  And so therefore, without much forethought or anticipation, without any careful planning, bringing Gaston to the School offered a radically different perspective. 

            West African filmmaking has a very divergent starting point in terms of culture, politics, financing as well as its use of sound and music.  Gaston said things like: “Well, I tend to make films every four to five years because finances are so difficult that every film has to count; it has to be something that I mean, it has to come from a particularly close and interactive relationship with the culture and history that I grew up in. And even if you think it’s kind of outside of historical time you know actually for us it’s functioning in our epoch and referring to the time it came from.  Although I’m not a musician, this is what I’m trying to do when I use music and this is how it relates to our musical tradition and how it works.”  And all of that stuff is, of course, so different from what most School of Sound attendees expect because they come from a culture where people say: “What’s your next project?” “Well, you tell me!” – someone will pay you to make a commercial project.  Gaston couldn’t think of being given a project to make; he is not a filmmaker looking for a career or money when he’s making film.  His approach is, frankly, a much more simple and integral recording of direct sound, and, I’m not saying he only uses two soundtracks, but he’s not playing at a kind of level of accumulated naturalised codes that someone like Murch works with – who is a brilliant editor, for sure.  By contrast, unwittingly, all the differences that decentre and displace Western modes came into focus at the School of Sound by talking to Gaston.

            Authenticity and identity – that is what Gaston brought to the debate.  Authenticity, which I know is a tricky term because we should say the ‘rhetoric of authenticity’ but it is, in relative terms, something very important for a filmmaker from West Africa like Gaston who has always and inevitably been very involved in a broader picture – cultural politics.  Which isn’t true of many Western filmmakers.  I think it’s only healthy because, apart from suggesting that there are other ways to make films, it also says: ‘Take a simple camera, take a simple means of recording sound and see how these sounds and images can go together.’  It’s not about some kind of techno fetish of expensive and sophisticated equipment. Actually, an imaginative image with an intelligent sound is much more effective than a kind of Red Cam and then digital effects, CGI, etc. etc.

I think that anecdote leads us quite well into our next question.  What do you understand by non-Western modes of thinking, theorising and making film?

It is good that you mention modes (in the plural) because it is clear to me – taking African cinema alone – that there’s considerable diversity and difference in the domain.  There was a lot more coming out of West Africa and Francophone Africa than the Anglophone or Lusophone spheres of influence.  Obviously South Africa was in a sort of isolation in that epoch – it hadn’t quite returned to civilisation – and the Maghreb, I mean, there’s unevenness even with that.  Tunisian cinema was in a very productive phase then; maybe now Morocco has come forward…

            These things come and go in constellations, which are always changing as your question suggests.  There’s also some curiosity about the layers of determinations.  Maybe it’s to do with some interaction in the colonial epoch?  Why is there not more coming from Anglophone Africa in relative terms?  I mean, obviously Nigeria and Nollywood is now an example of autonomous indigenous cinema, although a lot of it is rough stuff in terms of quality!

            I would say actually that there is a sort of possessiveness in Western attitudes and much support for African cinema that is totally self-serving.  A few years ago, like 2005, I went to a conference, plus exhibition, plus season in San Salvador in Brazil, which was about the relationship of Brazilian and African cinemas.  And when I went into the room to present my paper, there were the French cultural attaché and his assistant giving out photocopies of articles written in French to the people coming in through the door.  They had been somehow offended that the Brazilians had asked an Anglophone to talk about African cinema.

            In fact the French had said to the Brazilians: “We will build the bridge between Brazil and Africa,” and the Brazilians apparently replied:  “We don’t need you to build a bridge, we’ll do it ourselves!”

Robert B. Ray has asked: “What could be a more exact definition of the cinema than the crossroads of magic and positivism for a more succinct definition of film theory’s traditional project and to break the spell?”  Dyou see your work as located at some form of crossroads?  Dyou think your work breaks any spells, be they theoretical or practical?

I’ve got problems with this question.  This may be my limitation, but for cultural reasons the word ‘magic’ signifies something very problematic for me.  It’s often used in dubious ways in our society – you know, most people who talk about magic, they can’t form a sentence without the word ‘energy’ in it.  I support film theory’s traditional analytical project of breaking the spell.  I think it was Coleridge who said: ‘Do we pull the petals off to count them and see how a flower works, or do we stand back and just appreciate it?’  I’m very much of the former mindset that says let’s see how it works; let’s de-naturalise the invisible systems we live within, if we can.  Finding new forms of analysis and creativity to break up the specious and mystificatory… Of course positivism is preposterous, but magic is just as difficult for me to relate to.

Why is that?  Why is it difficult to relate to?

Well because magic is an unstable term that’s been so misused by reactionaries and mystics, in our culture anyway.  Positivism is problematic for other reasons, like empiricism in film studies it seems to me to be often, if not exclusively, a uniform of displacement and resistance to theory.  As Adorno once wrote, ‘They offer the shamelessly modest assertion that they do not understand – this eliminates even opposition, their last negative relationship with truth’, which is a way of kind of blocking progressive analysis, not trying to come to terms with it.  I’m just saying that from where I’m coming from, magic can be a dubious domain.

That’s fair enough.  Let’s take the idea of the crossroads.  What is there?  It’s a space.  But what is within the crossroads?  What is to be negotiated at the crossroads?  What is to be found there?  Does it function as an entity?  Or as a framework?  Would you relate to a crossroads?

As you know, I live in Ireland where there has been dancing at the crossroads for many a century!  I suppose this goes back to one of the first things I was saying: we are in a situation where the one-way transmission of one form of industrialised culture from the USA is pervasive.  So the small area that I have focused on, whether it was for the wider public in Channel 4 or in courses taught in the Huston School of Film & Digital Media, has really been about trying to provide a critique that points towards some degree of reciprocal exchange: films, television, music, even games should celebrate the diversity of the world.  Although, frankly, the hegemony of the bottom left-hand corner of the United States, almost entirely out of Los Angeles, is very difficult to shift in a situation where the global audience is one hundred times more likely to view a Hollywood product than any other form of film.

            Like my strange example of African-American and British music, it’s more complex and messy as soon as you look closely at the specific interrelations.   But there has to be a better exchange that can relativise and undermine dominant industrialised culture, and that’s where I put my efforts.  I think when our students seeWild Field (Nguyen Hong Sen, 1979), where two Vietcong guerrillas hide from American helicopters by taking their baby under the water in the air bubble of a plastic bag in the Mekong Delta … that’s already a shock to the system, and very different to the exhilarating aggression of helicopters going down on the village in Coppola’sApocalypse Now with Wagner blaring.  It gives people something to think about.  It’s a commutation test because it’s such a different spatial and political perspective.  Then maybe at some point they travel to Asia, maybe encounter Vietnamese culture directly, and it all begins to get more interesting.  I mean, my eldest son just spent eighteen months teaching English in Oaxaca in Mexico.  I don’t even have to hear it from him, I know it will have changed him completely, changed his perspective for the rest of his life.  And if that’s what you mean by crossroads, then great.

Do you think of de-Westernising film as primarily a political or ideological artistic process?  For example, does it extend from early cinema movements such as Third Cinema?  If so, what is it doing differently?

I think that Third Cinema was a particularly sharp-edged instance of challenge to Western film and my first encounter with that would have been seeing Hour of the Furnaces (Solanas and Getino, 1970) when I was at the Slade.  It is an extraordinary film though slightly distorted because it’s some sort of strange version of left-Peronism, if I remember rightly.  We need a much more complex and broad model because, as your question suggests, it is actually a complex interaction of economic, political, institutional and ideological processes, and that is what keeps academics in work – trying to see the interrelationship between these various determinations!  And all these dimensions are in movement.

            What is it doing differently?  I would say it is precisely that decentring or re-centring of seeing from another place, which means that what it has to say and how it has to say it is bound to be different, inevitably.  And that difference relativises something, which gains its power through saying: ‘This is the thing. This is how it is for us. This is how we do things’.  So as soon as Gaston [Kaboré] says, in a modest way, “I do things like this”, and because that’s different at some level, it reminds me of how I’ve always felt about the avant-garde for example.  Makers of experimental forms of film don’t see themselves as making a political incision but, at some level, they are also questioning the way that dominant forms of film work on us.

            There’s one last Gaston Kaboré example.  There is a moment in ZanBoko (Kaboré, 1988) where two women sit down outside their huts in a village and one woman has a baby and she hands the baby to an elder daughter to look after and they chat – “How’s the baby?” “How are things going with your husband?”  As they talk there is a lilting, I can’t even describe it, each of them makes a gentle background hum under the other’s words, when one is talking, the other is going “mmmm ... aahh”.  For me it’s a perfect instance of an everyday tenderness that is possible between people.  I mean what they’re doing is perfectly recognisable ‘universally’, to use that dangerous term.  Everywhere around the world women talk about how the homes are going, how their babies are doing and how their domestic space interfaces with other domestic spaces.  Whether it’s in Manhattan or Mali, forms of those exchanges and conversations go on.  But the actual texture of it in Moré, outside in the countryside somewhere near Bobo-Dioulasso, is completely specific and different, so in that double movement is something that can be recognised in other cultures but is also, clearly, a different form and version of it.  It’s the same, but different – actually a very gentle and affectionate version of it.  That’s probablynot quite how it sounds in busy New York or Paris or any other speedy metropolis.  For me that double movement is exemplary and that’s the effort: to try and open questioning and curiosity in different places.  But it’s uphill work because I think all these years later, the South is basically still a source of commodities and a repository for tourism, and, as we all know, tourists never talk to anyone; they get shown round the Mosque on the way to the beach, but that’s about it.

Interesting.  So we come to de-Westernising film studies.  Does it mean rejecting entirely dominant Western modes of thinking, production, criticism and film practice?  And is this even possible?

Well we’ve certainly got to try.  After all, there’s no alternative.  I wouldn’t want to sneer or be cynical about that.  I think that early encounter with theory always made me say: ‘What is this discourse for?  Who does it serve?  How does it function?’  I read something from Žižek about black rape after the New Orleans flood where he argues that, even if it’s factually true, raising it is racist, because picking up on that fact has a different effect in the world: firing a black rape and a white rape into discourse is no longer equal because they are feeding on very severe inequalities and very severe imbalances of power.[1]

            Coming back to film studies and film theory … it’s great that as it proliferates it is finally beginning to think about films from other parts of the planet.  But there is always the danger that it just becomes an enclosed and self-sufficient academic exercise rather than having any effect.  ‘The point is to change it’ as someone said in a famous manifesto.  I mean someone described academic life to me recently as ‘playing air guitar’ [Laughs] and that points precisely to the weakness of the academy.  Where’s the public?  Where’s the interaction?  How enclosed and institutional are our discourses, our ways of thinking?

            Another thing we have to think about in addition to languages are our institutional agendas: we have to try to find new ways of thinking and new ways of living, as Nietzsche suggested.  In order to do that we need to relativise and show what’s at stake.  I think it’s interesting that in, say, the history of art and, say, musicology, you have the (relatively new) terms ‘world art’ and ‘world music’ introduced.  And I’m still wrestling with this because, clearly, it seems to me that looking at, say, visual or musical culture in China or in Mozambique, should of course already be part of any substantial exploration of these cultural genres.  But is there a problem because you are importing a frame of reference or an angle of approach which is a Western thing, how we look at Western art.  And so I’m not sure: is it still a problem to just widen the frame and now suddenly call it ‘world art’?  Isn’t it strange that the term ‘world’ actually means everything outside the West,  as if we are looking at it through Western eyes, or try to find western meanings in it, we’re trying to see how it fits?

So do the same binaries stay in place?

Yes.  One of the best challenges to the binary thinking we all live within was Roland Barthes’s last lectures which were called ‘The Neutral’.  He was trying to find a way out of the structural limits of binary thinking.

And there’s a space, a liminal space, between these binary positions…

Absolutely.  In the dialect of south Devon the word ‘dimpsey’ means dusk or crepuscule in French.  I heard my parents using this word as a child growing up in Torquay, but now it is in danger of being lost as regional patois is swept away.

To come back to the original question, does de-Westernising film studies mean a disengagement with Western modes of theorising and representation?  And if so, is that even possible, given what you have said about your example of Blues music?

I think in a way you’re probably right because one can try to introduce a more reflexive mode into one’s forms of thought by thinking about thinking, and if anything keeps Marx and Freud’s agendas still going it’s because the spaces that they opened continue to be reflexive.  This reflexivity is a kind of feedback loop, which at least keeps us from falling naïvely into the unconscious assumptions that keep the world the way it is.  But having said that, there’s nowhere else to go, there’s no dry land on which to stand.  As Wittgenstein said about the philosophy of language, it is like rebuilding a ship at sea.  There’s no dry dock to take the boat into to examine it, so we just need to develop better forms of exchange, of sensitivity and respect to be able to understand the world with adequate complexity.

            The possibility to have ideas in the public space is long overdue to return.  I mean, Phil Wickham down in the museum [the Bill Douglas Centre, University of Exeter] organised this event at the NFT on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Channel 4.  I gave a talk and showed eight or ten extracts from the range of material our department was supporting, including South and Cinema from Three Continents, and the Screen article by Hannah Andrews reviewing this conference, which described what I’d said as ‘nostalgia’.  And, I have to say, that irritated me, not because it is any problem to have someone criticising my position, but clearly I’d not managed to convince listeners that our experience of Channel 4 has to be fired forward into the media we have at the moment rather than putting it in some museum case for a twenty-fifth anniversary conference.  I mean, I think our work should have been surpassed by new generations doing more and doing better.  At the time, it wasn’t like ‘Hey, we’ve achieved it all’.  Au contraire, our feeling was great frustration that we couldn’t do more.  But, you know, there are occasional moments of optimism that fragments from the past can help change the future.

This interview is adapted from ‘“Isn’t it strange that ‘world’ means everything outside the West?” An interview with Rod Stoneman’ which was carried out on 14 June 2011 and originally appeared in Saër Maty Bâ and Will Higbee (eds.) (2012) De-Westernizing Film Studies, London: Routledge.


Rod Stoneman is the Director of the Huston School of Film & Digital Media at the National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG).  He was Chief Executive of Bord Scannán na hÉireann/the Irish Film Board until September 2003 and previously a Deputy Commissioning Editor in the Independent Film and Video Department at Channel 4 Television in the United Kingdom.  In this role he commissioned, bought and provided production finance for over fifty African feature films.  His 1993 article ‘African Cinema: Addressee Unknown’, has been published in six journals and three books.

He has made a number of documentaries, including Ireland: The Silent VoicesItaly: the Image Business12,000 Years of Blindness and The Spindle, and has written extensively on film and television.  He is the author of Chávez: The Revolution Will Not Be TelevisedA Case Study of Politics and the Media (2008); and Seeing is Believing: The Politics of the Visual (2013).


[1] http://www.lacan.com/zizfrance3.htm.

Stoneman, R (2014) 'De-Westernising Film Studies: An Interview with Rod Stoneman', Policy and Practice: A Development Education Review, Vol. 18, Spring, pp. 62-73.