ECREA Conference: European Cinemas, Intercultural Meetings

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The Loss of Wide-Eyed Wonder? Recuperating the Exotic in Transnational European Cinema

Keynote Speaker at ECREA conference, Film Studies: European Cinemas, Intercultural Meetings' University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

The collapsed distances of globalisation and the multi-directional transnational flows of media and people (what Appardurai (1996) terms ‘mediascapes’ and ‘ethnoscapes’) have resulted in the loss of wide-eyed wonder, experienced in the past by explorers and travellers when they came into contact with radically different cultures. The diffusion of Western civilisation to all corners of the globe has led to cultural homogenisation and the loss of the exotic that Graham Huggan (2001) has described as ‘a particular mode of aesthetic perception which renders people, objects and places strange even as it domesticates them’. Mass tourism, mass migration and other forms of accelerated transnational mobility have radically changed the relationship between centre and periphery and, as James Clifford (1988) aptly puts it: ‘the exotic is [now] uncannily close’. Whereas in the past, the contact zone, theorised by Mary Louise Pratt (1992) as the ‘intercultural space of symbolic exchange and transculturation created by the encounter between the western colonial powers and the indigenous peoples of their colonies’, was a circumscribed localised space ‘confined to the outposts of colonialism itself’, decolonisation and post-war postcolonial migration to the metropolitan centres have led to a global diffusion of the contact zone. The presence of postcolonial diasporas in Europe has fostered processes of cultural hybridisation (the antipode of exoticism) leading to the demystification and dissolution of radical cultural difference. However, the perceived loss of the exotic has triggered nostalgia for a desired elsewhere. This is reflected in the popularity of World Music, World Cinema, global adventure travel, ethnic cuisine and similar phenomena related to ‘exoticism’, which Chris Bongie (1991) has described as ‘a discursive practice intent on recovering “elsewhere” values “lost “ with modernization of European society’. In my presentation, I shall argue that diasporic filmmakers living and working in Europe act as ‘culture brokers mediating the global trade in “exotic” – culturally othered – goods’ (Appiah 1992) and assume a vital role in recuperating the exotic. I understand ‘recuperation’ in two ways: first, as the process of recovering what has been lost and second, as the rehabilitation of the highly contested concept of the exotic. Associated with the long history of imperialism and colonialism, the subjugation and objectification of the subaltern, exoticism, alongside the related concept of Orientalism, has become widely regarded as a tabooed form of cultural representation that relies on ethnic stereotyping and that glosses over unequal power relations through spectacle. Although diasporic European cinema also relies on the spectacularisation of cultural difference, the underpinning hierarchies have changed. This kind of exoticism is no longer a projection of Western fantasies of the Other but a form of ‘autoethnography’ (Pratt 1992) constructed at the interstice of centre and periphery. In the exoticist discourse of European and other diasporic cinemas, the ‘imperial gaze’ (Pratt 1992) has been replaced by the tourist gaze (Urry 2002), which emphasises the commodification and consumption of the cultural difference in the form of ethnic food (Nina’s Heavenly Delights, A Touch of Spice, Soul Kitchen), colourful bazaars and heritage sites (West is West, Bride and Prejudice, The Turkish Bath), whirling dervishes and belly dancers (Exils, Couscous) and non-Western wedding rituals (Bride and Prejudice, Head-On, East is East). So popular is the sensuous allure of commodified exoticism in diasporic cinema (and not just in European cinema) that it seems to have triggered a wave of similar transnational productions, including Slumdog Millionnaire, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and The Hundred Foot Journey that cater to the global consumption of the Other.
Period13 Nov 201514 Nov 2015
Event typeConference
LocationCopenhagen , DenmarkShow on map


  • Exoticism
  • European cinema
  • Transnational cinema
  • postcolonial exotic