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16 May

From “Third Cinema” to “Latin American film”

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City of God City of God

Globalisation, national identity and the demise of political filmmaking

This article stems from concerns I have about the label “Latin American film,” or “Latin American cinema,” because the films to which it refers are so diverse, but the label homogenises them – and, by extension, the cultures from which they emerge. My concern is not primarily about the use of the term by people interested in film and culture – such as community members on this site! – but by the global film industry and by cultural theorists (where the former have vested interests in the label, and the latter should know better). In presenting some of these concerns, I describe changes that have lead to the widespread use and acceptance of this label, as well as aspects of the history of films and filmmaking in Latin American countries that makes such a label problematic for me and more generally.

Some recent developments in “Latin American cinema”
It’s no exaggeration to claim that what we currently call “globalisation” has since the 1990s changed the production and distribution of films from several Latin American countries almost beyond recognition and, as a result, changed the very perception of what is now generally termed “Latin American cinema” or “Latin American film.” And terminology is crucial here – both to the issues I discuss, and to the concerns I raise. Especially significant is that while many of the countries I’m discussing were until recently called “developing countries,” they’re now termed “emerging markets” – something that’s happened as free-trade ideas and practices spread across the subcontinent and its governments lessen their involvement in
filmmaking. The term “emerging markets” immediately shifts the identities at issue from national to commercial ones – something perhaps especially significant in the context of Latin American countries, for which the expression of national identities has been so important and so central to filmmaking, and for which commercial success was until comparatively recently neither a crucial aim nor a particular indicator of success.

As Luisela Alavaray sets out in her very informative article (“National, regional, and global: New waves of Latin American Cinemas,” Cinema Journal 47: 3, Spring 2008) on globalisation and ‘the current situation of the major Latin American film industries’ (48), free-trade policies and practices have now been introduced to a number of Latin American countries, and the film industry is no exception to this – with the result that films from some Latin American countries are enjoying unprecedented levels of global distribution and international funding. The creation of a Latin American office by the MPA (whose membership comprises the major Hollywood studios), the formation of Miravista and Ibermedia, and the involvement of Latin American as well as US and Spanish film festivals in providing global co-production and distribution opportunities for a number of Latin American filmmakers have all been milestones in these changes, and opened up far greater funding opportunities as well as far wider audiences to filmmakers previously restricted primarily to their domestic market.

Co-productions and alliances of this type have radically altered perceptions and conceptualisations of films from Latin American countries as well as the practical realities of filmmaking in them. Among the issues raised by such shifts are how such globalisation of film-as-commodity impacts on the ideas expressed in films and about their purpose, how far co-production’s status as transnational influences or even dictates film style and content, and whether we can still meaningfully talk about national cinemas at all.

And I must add a further note of caution about such new opportunities. Alvaray focuses her article on “the major” film industries of Latin America, and this is telling: it is after all primarily the three “major” film industries of Brazil, Argentina and Mexico that benefit from new co-production and distribution arrangements, while countries including Bolivia and Peru have not been so favoured. This points to just one of the ways in which the term “Latin American film” is problematic, partial and more of a “western” construction than reflection of a geo-economic or cultural reality.

Hollywood in particular has regarded “Latin America” as a single, homogenous market since at least the 1940s, defin
ing it as Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking (despite the wide variety of languages actually spoken), and in very broad geographical terms to include Central American, South American and Caribbean nations, as well as Puerto Rico. Drawing a revealing parallel, Alvaray identifies filmmakers and ‘cinema activists’ of the 1960s and 1970s as having similar notions of ‘an integrated continent,’ but that in their case the unity was ‘part of a political consciousness or the need to document injustices and inequalities overriding Latin American countries’ rather than market-driven (57). What Alvaray fails to recognise, though, is that the two Argentinian filmmakers who coined the term “Third Cinema,” and others who shared their ideals, were not focused only on Latin American countries, or indeed on a geographical location at all. The concept of Third Cinema is political, not national or regional, and does not rely on notions of an “integrated continent” simply because its instigators came from Argentina and Cuba.

Third Cinema:
Third Cinema is, though, a term still in need of clarification and development – even in the current climate, where it’s anyway largely stifled and displaced by the effects of globalisation and/as the imposition of free-trade practices and US-led market terminology.
Third Cinema is a term coined by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, two Argentinian filmmakers involved in creating La hora de los hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces), a radical three-part film that attacks global imperialism and its cultural influences. After and in reflecting on the two years spent making La hora de los hornos, Getino and Solanas wrote “Towards a Third Cinema” in 1968, and famously distinguished between “First Cinema” as the hegemonic cinema dominated by Hollywood (including its filmmaking and distribution practices), “Second Cinema” as art or experimental cinema (which might reflect a nationalist and revolutionary spirit, but doesn’t challenge fundamentals of the status quo), and “Third Cinema” as guerrilla filmmaking, the cinema of decolonisation, a militant cinema seeking to transform First and Second Cinemas by bringing to light and making explicit what they gloss over and/or only partly reveal about social inequalities and cultural politics. Third Cinema is not, therefore, easily defined! However, the fundamental point is that it was conceptualised and practised as a transformational, political cinema of decolonisation, aiming to expand viewers’ active engagement with film through expanding our ‘political and cultural horizons’ and imagining ‘alternatives to what is’ rather than accepting the status quo, especially in relation to imperialism (Wayne 57).

A cinematic practice that disrupts the traditional binary between art and politics, Third Cinema promotes taking an overtly political position in filmmaking – identifying such commitment not as propaganda, but as valuable and essential in the battle against the hegemony of colonising nations. Solanas and Getino’s ideas were not created in a vacuum; filmmakers such as Julio Garcia Espinosa in Cuba, Glauber Rocha in Brazil, and fellow Argentinian Fernando Birri were also calling for films and filmmakers to oppose the “perfection” of dominant and art cinemas, and to challenge their tendency to lull audiences into passive consumption and aesthetic musings rather than active political engagement with concrete social realities.

Third Cinema was embraced by filmmakers on other continents – most notably in Africa and the Indian subcontinent. And, while keeping cultural specificity central to its films, Third Cinema maintained an awareness of its global context and role in exploring how cinema operates as a site of political struggle, and refused to simply celebrate indigenous cultures uncritically.
Los realizadores Gerardo Vallejo, Fernando Solanas y Octavio Getino  junto Juan Domingo Perón (1971)
In 1984, Teshome Gabriel wrote the first academic book attempting to theorise Third Cinema (Third Cinema in the Third World: The Aestehtics of Liberation); following this, scholars and activists engaged increasingly in debates about Third Cinema’s aims and practices. The movement’s also responded to internal concerns, such as those raised by Ranjana Khanna who criticised its recurring failure to represent colonised women and specifically the violence they experience at the hands not just of colonisers but of colonised men. And Third Cinema has shown itself to be highly adaptable to modification and criticism: one excellent example of this is Sara Gómez's 1977 Cuban film, One Way or Another, which commits to a political position by clearly supporting the Cuban revolution, but also critiques ‘the persistence of class and gender conflicts within Cuba’ (Wayne 63).

Michael Wayne cites Gómez's film during his insightful discussion of The Battle of Algiers, which he regards as Second not Third Cinema because it lacks an overt political commitment. He also clarifies (in “The critical practice and dialectics of Third Cinema,” Third Text 52, Summer 2000) that Third Cinema shouldn’t be confused with “Third World” cinema, because Third Cinema can be produced by any country – First or Third, developed or developing. Crucially, too, First and Second Cinema can be produced in and by any country.

This point is crucial to the concerns of this article – highlighting that “even” developing countries can produce First or Second Cinema, because the terms refer not to the geographical or national identity of films, but to their institutional and filmmaking practices and strategies, and to their political goals. So, a developing country is quite capable of producing First Cinema – that is, films in line with hegemonic filmmaking practices, content, politics and aesthetics. My point and my concern is, then, that developing countries are perhaps all the more prone to produce such products when they are styled as “emerging markets” and invited to participate in the hegemonic system through alluring and lucrative co-production and distribution deals arranged and controlled by more powerful countries.

Third Cinema and “difference”
One of Third Cinema’s commitments was to precisely the range and variety of national cinemas that might produce films with an overtly political aesthetic and “call to action” – a recognition that particular socio-political concerns are culturally specific to countries, regions and peoples, and that films produced under the banner of Third Cinema would be accordingly varied. Such pragmatics have arguably been
co-opted and watered-down by concepts such as postmodernism and multiculturalism in recent decades, resulting in the kind of thinking and rhetoric evident in Alvaray’s article when she asserts that ‘contemporary processes of globalisation are also processes of hybridisation’ and that the adoption of free-trade economic policies and hegemonic industry norms of production and distribution do not necessarily dilute ‘the home-grown product’ (61-62). Alvaray cites the Head of Miravista, Fernando Lagier, who argues that what makes a film popular (that is, commercially successful) is ‘its cultural specificity vis-à-vis its universal values,’ and gives City of God (Cidade de Deus, d. Fernando Mereilles & Katia Lund, 2002) as an example, explaining its success as arising from its representation of ‘worldly problems’ in a way that ‘can only be Brazilian’ (cited Alvaray 62).

This sort of valorisation of a certain type of “cultural specificity” that nonetheless operates within hegemonic filmmaking codes emanating from Hollywood is at best problematic. Certainly it glosses over the extent to which only “Brazilian” films and filmmakers willing and able to conform in many ways to the aesthetics and narrative codes as well as the production practices and politics of First Cinema have been allowed the opportunity to benefit from assistance with global distribution. I also find it naïve to claim that simply allowing elements of Brazilian (for example) cultural specificity in films achieves the genuinely ‘plural perspectives’ to which Alvaray refers when concluding that such postmodernism and free-trade based globalisation ‘make[s] the emancipation from hegemonic discourses possible’ (62). I don’t think that First – or Second – Cinema productions from countries in Latin America or elsewhere are necessarily “bad;” however, I think that to validate them as sufficiently “culturally specific” to be emancipatory, ignoring the extent to which they participate in First Cinema politics and practices, is misleading, and contributes to de-politicising films and eroding genuine differences between countries.

Interestingly, Alvaray references Brazilian director Walter Salles’s 2003 comment that:
I believe there is not just one Latin American cinema, just as there is no single Brazilian cinema. There are cinemas; made of sometimes contradictory currents that often collide, yet come together in a desire to portray our realities in an urgent and visceral manner (from his preface to Alberto Elena and Marina Diaz Lopez, eds. The Cinema of Latin America. Wallflower Press 2003).

Alvaray cites this in arguing that ‘nowadays’ it is appropriate to talk of Latin American cinema in terms of ‘diversity of styles and topics’ rather than in reference to Third Cinema which she characterises as ‘the prescribed… way of filmmaking for
Sara Gómez
countries that were imagined to be integrated by analogous histories, conflicts and similar goals’ (48). This seems disingenuous, though – not least in referring to Third Cinema as prescriptive, as well as to shared or analogous histories, conflicts and similar goals as ‘imagined.’ But Alvaray is not the focus of my criticism. I want rather to foreground problems with suggesting that Third Cinema belongs to the past and is no longer (if ever, by implication) of relevance to Latin American and other filmmakers; also, problems in accepting Hollywood’s characterisation of “Latin America” as a single (emerging) market, and of defining Third Cinema as something of use only to nations and filmmakers not invited to participate in circulation and distribution opportunities previously reserved for nations associated with First Cinema.

The key problem with this kind of thinking is its (mis)understanding of the concept of “difference.” In particular, it fails to consider from what precisely “Latin American cinema” is supposed to be different, and how far that defines its “product” in this age of so-called globalisation.

The extent to which First Cinema’s definition of a film – and what constitutes a “good” or “successful” film, in particular – might also be challenged. Alvaray writes that ‘the vast majority of films produced in Latin America cannot recover costs just in their domestic market’ (60). Here, she not only obliquely references the fact that very few “Latin American” countries even now are actually benefiting from globalisation, but also makes a hugely uncritical assumption: Her comment assumes that to be successful, to be “good,” a film must make a profit or at least recover its costs. Widespread as this belief now is, it’s not an absolute truth, but a belief promulgated by the dominant (capitalist) culture at this historical moment: there is nothing that requires good films to turn a profit! Indeed, prize-winning Bolivian filmmakers – who enjoy neither wide distribution nor the financial benefits of international co-production – might well disagree that recovering costs need be an aesthetic, political or practical element of excellent filmmaking. This again emphasises the differences within and between different filmmakers in different regions and nations across Latin America…

I return, then, to problematising and challenging the term “Latin American cinema” – not simply because “Latin American cinemas” is preferable, but also for more complex reasons. One reason concerns how the term “Latin American” is increasingly used in an over-simplifying and homogenising manner which is in turn implicated in what Ben Genocchio in his article “The discourse of difference: Writing ‘Latin American’ art” (Third Text 43, Summer 1998) describes as ‘the construction and invention of Latin American cultures’ by North Americans and Europeans (4). It seems to me that such a term does – in respect of film, and in the financial climate of “globalisation” – undermine and elide the huge diversity of cultures throughout Central and South America and the Caribbean. In many ways, it reduces them to what Homi Bhabha might term a “fantasy of a certain cultural space” defined by its difference from and “Other-ness” to the US and Europe – rather than by the many and varied differences across and within its own nations, peoples and cultural forms.

The challenge, then, is how to work to avoid such homogenisation. At the levels of production and distribution, it’s almost impossible for us as individuals to have an impact in the face of the US’s hegemony and its co-opting of the “major” Latin American and other cinemas. However, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try; in this sense, Third Cinema is still alive and kicking, even if it sometimes seems impossibly utopian in its aims. And on other levels, we can act: Merely by participating in an online community such as this one, both celebrating but bringing a critical awareness to our understanding of Latin American films, does help. Additionally, raising awareness of the rich diversity of and differences between the regions and countries that constitute “Latin America” helps, as does sharing information about films that are more meaningfully “culturally specific,” and being more active, politically conscious viewers. In particular, too, as a community that can share information about films that promote Third Cinema’s goals, we can counter some of the homogenising work already done by Hollywood and globalisation, even if we continue to enjoy the products of First and Second Cinema from Latin American countries and elsewhere.


Samantha Holland

Samantha Holland

I'm a freelance writer, copy-editor and proofreader, having previously been a university lecturer in Film, Literature, Philosophy and Rhetoric in the UK and the US, and also having practised as a commercial barrister for several years. I lived on the Galapagos Islands and in Bolivia for two years doing voluntary work, and also spent many months in Lesotho where I run a community project.


  • richard saiz

    Dear Samantha--thank you for your article on 3rd cinema and the challenges of defining "Latin America cinema". i am putting together a six week course for UC Berkeley's extended learning program and am faced with the difficult task of showcasing 6 recent films from Latin America that would represent significant trends in the current state of films from Latin America. I would appreciate your suggestions of possible films to include in this course.

    Thank you

    richard saiz Thursday, 18 October 2012 21:00 Comment Link
  • Samantha Holland

    Thanks for the comment :-) I'm not convinced appealing to a wide "market" is that important in terms of cinema other than because of financial issues - and I don't agree we "can't" escape from valuing things in primarily financial terms... the origins of cinema ARE I think tied up with the emergence of consumer capitalism, so it's really hard and very complex. But still your comment about the possibilities of going "beyond" that current reality (dominated by the Hollywood-capitalist model) show that other ways of thinking are possible. In fact, it would be nice to see some thoughts on films such as Amores Perros to see what people think is "alternative" and what is not...! ;o)

    Samantha Holland Sunday, 13 June 2010 12:20 Comment Link
  • Sandrine Quentin

    In cinema, as in most art forms, the value of a piece is often measured in financial terms. That's something we can't escape from. So the closer a film will be to generic/general "rules" and trends, the more chances it's got to appeal to a wide market and thus be a financial success; a valued piece. I think it is a sad reality. But last weekend I was watching Amores Perros and I think there are ways to go beyond this reality, this easy pattern.

    Sandrine Quentin Sunday, 30 May 2010 10:16 Comment Link

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