Encounters with Cultural Difference: Cosmopolitanism and Exoticism in Tanna

Daniela Berghahn
2017 Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media Issue   unpublished
This essay aims to critically reassess and, ultimately, rehabilitate exoticism, understood as a particular mode of cultural representation and a highly contested discourse on cultural difference, by bringing it into dialogue with cosmopolitanism. It offers a theoretical exploration of exoticism and cosmopolitanism alongside associated critical frameworks, such as the contact zone, autoethnography, authenticity and cultural translation, and brings them to bear on two award-winning films that
more » ... ning films that aptly illustrate a new type of exoticism in contemporary world cinema. Using Tanna (Martin Butler and Bentley Dean, 2015) and Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra, 2015), both made in collaboration with Indigenous communities, as case studies, this essay proposes that exoticism is inflected by cosmopolitan, rather than colonial and imperialist, sensibilities. It therefore differs profoundly from its precursors, which are premised on white supremacist assumptions about the Other which legitimised colonial expansion and the subjugation of the subaltern. By contrast, the new type of exoticism challenges and decentres Western values and systems of knowledge and aligns itself with the ethico-political agendas of cosmopolitanism, notably the promotion of crosscultural dialogue, an ecological awareness and the empowerment of hitherto marginalised communities. From the travelogues of early cinema over ethnographic documentaries to contemporary world cinema, cinema has always played a pivotal role in mediating visions of cultural Otherness. By projecting images of faraway exotic landscapes, peoples and their traditions, cinema indulges armchair travellers to marvel at "wondrous difference" (Griffiths) and promotes intercultural exchange and cosmopolitan connectivity. Contemporary world cinema and the global film festival circuit, its prime site of exhibition, function as a new type of "contact zone", which Mary Louise Pratt has famously theorised in the colonial context as the intercultural space of symbolic exchange and transculturation, catering for cosmopolitan cinephiles and their interest in cultural difference. Pratt defines contact zones as "social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination-like colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out across the globe today" (4). She describes the intercultural encounters occurring in the contact zone as "interactive", as the constitution of subjects "in and by their relations to each other" (7). If we conceive of world cinema and its exhibition on the global film festival circuit (and beyond) as such a contact zone then the interactive exchange occurring in this space is, on the one hand, the expectation of metropolitan audiences to encounter a particular kind of world cinema that corresponds to their exotic